Celine Song’s Past Lives breaks you down and then builds you back up. Spanning twenty years, it is a moving tale about connection in which three people reckon with the edifice of fate and the power of shared memory. We watch Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) – once childhood sweethearts in Seoul, then young adults separated by Nora’s emigration to Canada – reunite as thirtysomethings in New York, where Nora is settled with her loving husband Arthur (John Magaro).
Despite the time lapse, Nora and Hae Sung discover their bond is unchanged in its force; their sincere, sustained stares and unsaid words are charged with understanding. Meanwhile, Arthur is rendered a spectator, left tapping at the impenetrable: ‘You dream in a language that I can’t understand’. Disoriented from finding meaning in disparate places, Nora yearns for clarity about her conflicting sense of belonging.
Past Lives isn’t a chaotic portrait of vicissitudes in which stability is violently uprooted. Celine Song simply considers what was, what is, and what could be. It’s an honest look at reconnection, confronting what someone risks impacting in the present when they revisit the past and can’t deny what they find. How does someone proceed when hello and goodbye are equally corrosive?
Lee’s nuanced performance is a balancing act of stoicism and vulnerability, while Yoo’s hopeful gaze and tentative body language centre the film. Magaro is brilliant: heartsick but not resentful, he magnanimously stands back.
Light and heavy in all the right places, Past Lives carries weighty pathos but it also holds space for faith. Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur must contend with a new reality in which difficult truths coexist, but by facing the tortuously bittersweet, their souls are ultimately deepened. On this complicated road to closure, pain has an enlightening purpose.
Past Lives is out now. Screening at GFT 9th, 11th and 12th October. Tickets here.