Delving into the “what ifs” and “could have beens”, first time director Celine Song weaves a tale of destiny and fated love, taking this tired trope and resuscitating it beyond recognition.
Past Lives introduces a love story spanning 24 years. Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) are childhood sweethearts torn apart by Na Young’s immigration with her family. 12 years later, Na Young, now Nora, finds herself rekindling the friendship via video calls and determination (something necessary for the 13 hours’ time difference separating them), but this doesn’t survive for long. Prioritising her work, Nora suggests they stop talking so she can focus on her writing. This leads her to a writer’s retreat, wherein she meets Arthur (John Magaro), a fellow writer and resident of New York. We rejoin these two 12 years on, now happily married and content in their writing careers. It is only the reappearance of Hae Sung which can unearth the complex emotions which have remained dormant within Nora all these years and forces all three to confront the heart wrenching reality of an impossible love.
Lee delivers a mesmerising performance as Nora, masterfully conveying the tragic complexity of her character as she comes to terms with the life she once lived, and didn’t really have any choice in leaving. We stay with Nora throughout as she remains strong willed and open to what life throws her way. It is impossible not to live through the motions alongside Lee’s protagonist, and when brought together with Yoo and Magaro, the chemistry these three share makes the film. We see the bonds which connect them blossom and cling on tight, never reaching a breaking point but leaving a trail of quiet devastation all the same. When Song’s poetic dialogue is not enough, the silences shared between Nora and Hae Sung speak louder than any words could.
Each and every shot feels like a painting. The melancholic colours and gorgeous location shooting washes over you and feels like a breath of fresh air, while Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s music plays like a whimsical dream. I am reminded of the soothing melodies of the Life is Strange soundtrack, particularly Golden Hour. The soft soundtrack perfectly accompanies the intimate conversations and Shabier Kirchner’s illustrative cinematography. Kirchner’s photography allows the locations and characters to breathe. There is a beautiful harmony between the visuals and photography which culminates in truly one of the prettiest films I have seen.
This is a love story that aches and asks you to take some time with it. The story unfolds at a gentle pace, exploring Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur in the most human of ways and denying any simple, unemotional answers. Song has crafted a beautiful tragedy, understated and comforting in its telling. The turmoil is serene, peaceful even, something profoundly unique to this picture and all the better for it. It is a film with a tender kind of strength, going quietly without a fight and leaving a bittersweet taste in the mouth.