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PAST LIVES ★★★★
(M) 106 minutes
The Korean concept of “in-yeon” is the central idea from which Past Lives blooms. Simply put, it’s the fate that binds two people: a predetermined destiny that intertwines their lives. In the case of Celine Song’s much-hyped feature debut, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year and recently played at the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals, the in-yeon is between two childhood friends, Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo).
Greta Lee and Teo Yoo play childhood friends Na Young and Hae Sung who reconnect as adults in Past Lives.
As 12-year-olds in Seoul, they’re academic rivals, but there’s something else there, something pure and sweet. They go on one date, chaperoned by their mothers; just as suddenly, Na Young’s family leaves for a new life in Canada. There, she changes her name to Nora and begins a new life.
The film follows the pair over three time periods, with 12 years passing between each. First as children; then reconnecting online as 24-year-olds in a chaste but consuming unspoken budding love affair, cut short when Nora, overwhelmed, severs contact; and finally, as 36-year-olds, when Hae Sung finally visits New York City, where Nora, now married, is living and working as a writer, and the two see one another in person for the first time in two decades.
It’s a quiet and lovely slow burn of a film. Much of its power is in the things unsaid: looks exchanged, long stretches of silence and stillness. The use of music adds to its atmosphere, particularly Leonard Cohen’s Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye soundtracking the family packing up their lives, a perfect needle drop that encapsulates the enormity of a moment.
Lee and Yoo are convincing as their 24 and 36-year-old selves, and the nebulous nature of their relationship is reflected through the chemistry that at times feels romantic, at others familial. John Magaro as Nora’s writer husband Arthur straddles the line between desperation and loyalty. A climactic scene between the three brings the kind of heart-in-throat tension that makes big-screen cinema such a treat, and teases out their complex relationships with nuance.
The will-they-won’t-they potential hangs thick over the story, and Song plays it out like a classic Korean drama. Mirrored scenes between past and present are beautifully framed – the image of 12-year-old Na Young and Hae Sung saying goodbye is potent, as well as bringing urban Seoul to life. Later in the film, the image expands to reveal the scope of the city and the distance between the pair.
But the film’s greatest trick is that the romance is actually not its most compelling point. Past Lives is much more convincing and moving as a metaphor for diasporic longing. Hae Sung, the only person who still calls Nora by her Korean name, is a perennial symbol of what’s been lost as she becomes more ensconced in Western culture and life, indeed, Nora’s character is much more fleshed out than his.
Nora is close to her family in the first two timelines, but by the third they’re nowhere to be seen. She has blossomed into her version of the American dream, but the question lingers of what the cost has been. In a painful scene between Arthur and Nora, in which he wonders about his role in her life, he tells her she sleep-talks in Korean and “dream[s] in a language I can’t understand”. Even her most intimate relationship has an innate remove that is steeped in cultural displacement.
Whichever way you choose to read it, the film’s final moments are a gut-punch. The in-yeon between these childhood friends has kept them connected for years despite distance and space, but their futures are uncertain. Is it this life or the next that might see their dream finally realised, or is it just that – a dream?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. As Cohen sang, “You know my love goes with you as your love stays with me / It’s just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea.”
Past Lives is released in cinemas on August 24.
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