Past Lives, Movie Review

Playing in select cities and at The Belcourt this week, nationwide on 6/23, "Past Lives is a real rarity in how beautifully it presents love in all of its suffering and splendor..."

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In another life
I would be your girl
We keep all our promises
Be us against the world

In another life
I would make you stay
So I don’t have to say
You were the one that got away
The one that got away

These are some lyrics to a Katy Perry song titled The One That Got Away, and while it may seem weird to bring this up right now, it’s perfectly fitting for Past Lives, a wondrous, wistful romance for the ages. Elegantly written and directed by Celine Song, it’s the woulda, coulda, shoulda of two childhood sweethearts who could only love each other from afar. And through their exquisite, emotionally enriching journey that spans over two decades, Song delicately holds our hearts in the palm of her hand.

As two 12 year-olds living in South Korea, Nora (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) have this innocent crush on each other, and they even get to go on a date (arranged by Nora’s mother) in the rain. Just one of many happy memories for Nora to travel with as her and her family emigrate to Canada. Though, it’s an abrupt goodbye for Hae Sung. Nora is too young to realize that she’s leaving with a piece of him.

Twelve years pass and Nora (now played by Greta Lee) has left Toronto behind to study playwriting in New York. One day, while talking to her mom on the phone, she starts to look up people online she once knew in Seoul and comes across Hae Sung (now played by Teo Yoo) who has been searching for her on social media. At the beginning of them reconnecting we see a little shock and shyness, which is to be expected after losing touch for so many years. All of that quickly dissipates and it’s as if they’re kids again who can’t hide their excitement and adoration for one another.

Their conversations get longer and more intimate as time goes on, but the reality of a reunion slips away as they both will have to wait too long. It’ll take at least another year or so for either Nora to get back to Seoul or for Hae Sung to visit New York. This is just one of a variety of reasons why Nora decides to take a break from their chats. Another abrupt goodbye for Hae Sung.

Twelve more years go by and Nora is now married to Arthur (John Magaro) who she met at a writing residency shortly after she ended her conversations with Hae Sung. They’re both writers and in love. He’s even learning the Korean language to grow deeper with Nora and interpret her dreams since he hears her speak it in her sleep. He knows all about Hae Sung, and he and Nora have honest discussions about what may have been and how Arthur could easily be the villain of Nora and Hae Sung’s love story. He’s not wrong except Past Lives is too smart, mature, and thoughtful to go down such a clichéd path.

Their friendship, love and pain has all lead to this when, at long last, Hae Sung and Nora see each other in person for the first time since they were kids. With enough longing to last several lifetimes – everything comes flooding back during their New York rendezvous and it’s profound to watch. It’s also heartbreaking as the realization sets in that they aren’t destined to be together. At least not in this life where time isn’t on their side. This carries into the concept of In-Yun. It’s essentially about people forming connections over time and it gives us hope for Nora and Hae Sung. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that in another life their love is allowed to fully flourish. It’s a lovely thought to hang on to in a soulmate state of mind.

Past Lives is nothing short of a stunning debut for Song. It’s rich, emotional, and quietly poignant with a trio of spectacular performances. Magaro plays Arthur with incredible self-awareness, clearly understanding the situation at hand. The communication shared between him and Nora is very strong, which is why their relationship feels so solid. Even so, that doesn’t mean the insecurities involved don’t exist. They do and they’re warranted.

Giving subtle yet powerful, moving portrayals, Lee and Yoo pierce the soul with great ease. You ache for them the entire time, but especially during their shared moments of deafening silence. Their rekindling just feels right, so our natural response is for Nora and Hae Sung to figure it out and live happily ever after. However, Song isn’t giving us a farcical fairytale or some threadbare rom-com. We are being blessed by a complicated, melancholy drama of love, fate, and free will that’s patient, raw, and assuredly authentic.

Past Lives is a real rarity in how beautifully it presents love in all of its suffering and splendor and how it shapes and shifts who we are through the various phases of life.

Brandon Vick is a member of The Music City Film Critics’ Association and the Southeastern Film Critics Association, the resident film critic of the SoBros Network, and the star of The Vick’s Flicks Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @SirBrandonV and be sure to search #VicksFlicks for all of his latest movie reviews.

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