By: Adam Freed
Do not be fooled by what appears on the cautiously paced exterior of Past Lives. Cloaked in a methodical 24 year tale of a former childhood romance, may lurk one of the more poignant and emotionally connective films in years. Celine Song writes and directs the story of Nora, a 12 year old young lady who, with her family, leaves Seoul for Toronto. Eventually Nora’s immigration journey leads her to New York City, the realization of her childhood dream of becoming a successful writer. Complicating matters is that just prior to Nora leaving her homeland, she experiences her first ever bout of young love with classmate Hae Sung. What at first appears to be little more than a passing crush, interrupted by the inevitability of her move, becomes a quarter century journey of equal parts discovery and longing.
Credit must be bestowed, once again, upon A24 Studios for having the courage to invest in a film that casts no bankable stars, uses zero CG technology and contains no action set pieces. Past Lives is a reflection of life that will likely cycle beyond the grasp of younger viewers, who to no fault of their own, may not possess the requisite years to have suffered the scars and stockpiled the celebrations that make enduring the tectonic pace of this film feel enjoyable.
American author F. Scott Fitzgerald cautions that “You can’t repeat the past,” yet this is exactly what Nora and Hae Sung are tempted to do, first at 24 in a virtual relationship that is lived via phone and Skype, ignoring their geographic dilemma. Neither party ever truly seeks or is granted closure to their pending feelings for one another, which is why after another 12 year hiatus, their eventual meeting at 36 is where patient audiences, who invest in the first two acts of the film, will risk their hearts being cracked wide open by some of the realities of life that may interrupt an all too perfect love story.
Methodically directed films require emotional range and precision from their cast in order to succeed. Past Lives succeeds on the all too relatable emotional tour de force that is Greta Lee’s performance. Mainstream audiences who seek the ever elusive “I saw her first” moment need look no further than Lee, who avoids dramatic tropes in favor of a connectible depth that people who have loved, let go and loved again will find buoyant and breathtaking. Lee’s performance puts her in the esteemed career-establishing company of Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer and Julia Roberts’ Steel Magnolias. In a summer season robust with intellectual property prequels and sequels, Past Lives slyly questions which of life’s backstories are worthy of another chapter, and which are best left as fond memories.