In Past Lives, Korean-Canadian playwright Celine Song has crafted one of the most achingly romantic, melancholic and beautiful films of the 21st century. It is an honest, elegant and restrained depiction of yearning, nostalgia and restraint, brought to life with such originality and authenticity that it instantly became the highlight of this year’s Berlin Film Festival, even if it did not receive the accolades it so richly deserves.
The film follows Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora (Greta Lee), childhood sweethearts that were separated when Nora immigrated to Canada from Korea at the age of 12. The two would go on to lead vastly different lives, with Hae Sung following a seemingly predestined path of university, military service and a white-collar job, while Nora, unshackled from the confines of a traditional Korean worldview, pursues a career in playwriting in New York. Out of providence, or In Yun (인연) in Korean, the two reconnects with each other in 12-year intervals as the film follows their encounters and their attempts to kindle and rekindle their relationship, from their early teens, to their twenties, and finally, to their mid-thirties, when Hae Sung decides to pay a fateful visit to Nora in New York, who is now married to Arthur (John Magaro), a white, American writer that represents Nora’s new, present life.
Past Lives comes to life in both its spoken and unspoken moments. The screenplay is magnificent, translated movingly by its two leading performances from Greta Lee and Teo Yoo. In particular, Greta Lee inhabits her character with such ease and lightness that when she finally reveals Nora’s sorrow and poignancy from years of longing, nostalgia and separation, the contrast makes her performance shine even brighter. Equally natural is John Magaro as Arthur. Magaro manages to retain such likeability as the trespasser in the central relationship, showing humility and compassion behind an initial appearance of awkward bewilderment and envy. This is augmented by Song’s clever blocking and framing of the characters, made especially evident in a crucial scene that bookends the film featuring the three characters in a bar, engaging in a conversation that cannot be genuinely conversed.
It is a masterful demonstration of how, being pushed and pulled all across the world, we often find ourselves strangers among our own people…Sometimes, there is no lonelier feeling.
Celine Song’s Broadway experience is immediately obvious in the best way possible, as the film is so tightly written that no detail is insignificant. Her dialogues often feel poetic, but in a way that is literary without ever becoming forced or unnatural. There are elements of Sofia Coppola, of Nora Ephron, of Wong Kar Wai, of Richard Linklater and many other cinematic masters in Song’s writing, but it always feels so original, palpable, transporting and coherent, moving like a creeping crescendo of emotions, enrapturing us from the very first scene all the way to its stirring, heartrending and tearful ending.
What’s so striking about the film is that the sense of distance is most pervasive in the moments where Nora and Hae Sung are physically next to each other. Here we have two star crossed lovers, reunited after years of separation and longing, unable to articulate their feelings, their desires, their loss and their regrets. Instead, all of this is conveyed with such richness through Song’s adept use of the unspoken, the pause, the silence, the gentle exchange of eye contact, all building on each other to create first, an overwhelming passion followed by poignant melancholy. It is a masterful demonstration of how, being pushed and pulled all across the world, we often find ourselves strangers among our own people, faced with our own upbringing, memories and culture, confronting our most intimate relationships. Sometimes, there is no lonelier feeling.
Few films have been able to portray the immigrant experience with such nuance and authenticity. Leaving home, finding new meaning and purpose in a new environment, straddling between two worlds and learning to accept a multicultural identity. We begin to question our understanding of our roots and our sense of self. Fitting into a new reality and value system is hard. Letting go of our past is even harder. This is, in essence, the central dilemma for Nora – Hae Sung is a recurring reminder of her past, of Korea, of a world she has left behind. There is comfort in clinging on to the beautiful, unresolved memories of yesteryears. The struggle is to reconcile that with the insurmountable necessity of living in the present and moving forward.
It is a small, intimate story communicated with the deepest emotions and the biggest heart.
At its heart, Past Lives is about fate. It is a deeply romantic look at how our understanding of love changes with the passage of time, how maturity can shatter memories, dreams and perceptions, and how the paths we have chosen reinforce or eliminate our most fervent desires, all told through a love story that spans decades, continents, and realities. Song’s look at past lives, not only at the past we have experienced, but also at the multiple past lives that we could have and would have lived, strikes a profoundly philosophical chord that leaves viewers pondering their own paths, their own love and loss, their own ‘what ifs’, their own past lives. It is a small, intimate story communicated with the deepest emotions and the biggest heart, a touching achievement representing not only the Berlinale at its best, but also an enchanting, loving example of modern cinema at its best.