‘Past Lives’ Review: A Wondrous And Deliriously Honest Romantic Drama

After a triumphant debut at Sundance last January, this jaw-droppingly assured first effort from writer-director Celine Song matches the hype and transcends it. 

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in ‘Past Lives.’ Jon Pack

Around 2006 or sometime shortly after, love as we know it changed forever, though most of us barely noticed. Facebook had just launched, as had Skype; time and space came off their tracks and started collapsing in on themselves with the suddenness of an avalanche. The smudged-up laptop screens on which we once played solitaire became not just zones of reconnection, but veritable hothouses where unfulfilled desires and half-remembered crushes could blossom into a teeming garden of love both lost and ever-blooming.

PAST LIVES ★★★★ (4/4 stars)
Directed by: Celine Song
Written by: Celine Song
Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro
Running time: 106 mins.

Past Lives charts this pixelated Eden with both precision and beauty. This jaw-droppingly assured freshman effort from Korean-Canadian filmmaker and New York City playwright Celine Song has been perched atop most cinephiles’ must-see lists since its triumphant debut at Sundance last January.  Past Lives — finally getting a theatrical release from A24 — matches the hype and transcends it. 

Song has crafted a deliriously honest romantic drama that is utterly singular even while it calls to mind everything from Richard Linklater to Wong Kar-wai to David Lean’s Brief Encounter. This is a movie that flows over with patience, forgiveness, and tender wisdom — qualities all the more wondrous for their relative absence from modern society and its movies.

What are Nora and Hae Sung to each other? 

The film begins with this question as some unnamed observers watch these two stare at each other a bit too intently over drinks at a New York bar and try to guess their connection. The same question hangs over a story that spans 24 years in these two characters’ lives. The answer is at once simple—they are two old friends who love each other—and utterly unknowable. Are they each other’s true loves, their destinies forged together not only in this life but in past and future lives? Song uses this friction to create more than a palpable romantic energy that tunnels off the screen and into our lives.

Seung Ah Moon and Seung Min Yim as the young Nora and Hae Sung in ‘Past Lives.’ Jin Young Kim/Twenty Years Right

Nora and Hae Sung were best friends as 12-year-olds in Korea, back when Nora was still Na Young and their relationship consisted of drawing on each other’s arms in highlighter and competing on tests in school. They went on a kind-of date once, climbing on public art sculptures at a park and holding hands in the car on the way home. A few weeks later, with barely a shrug, Na Young shed her name, her grade school crush, and the rest of her life in Korea when her artist parents emigrated their family to Canada.  

This park sequence is the first of three deliriously evocative set pieces with which Song conjures up a cosmic connection between the pair that is simultaneously as effervescent as stardust and as solid as a wireless modem. The second is my very favorite in the film: twelve years later, Hae Sung manages to track down Nora even though he didn’t know her name (he leaves a message for Na Young on the Facebook promotional page for her filmmaker father’s latest project) and they revivify their shared but almost forgotten rapture over a series of deceptively intimate Skype conversations. 

This teased out reconnection is brilliantly pieced together by Song and her editor Keith Fraase (Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder and Knight of Cups). We feel the strength of their bond (she suggests he watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which he in turn adores) as readily as we do the social and geographic forces that keep them asunder: Nora, a playwright (like Song herself), is in New York completing her MFA while Hae Sung is in the midst of mandatory military service. It is a sequence made all the more swoony thanks to a dreamlike soundtrack from Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear (of Brooklyn experimental pop-folk mainstays Grizzly Bear) that beautifully reflects Nora and Hae Sung’s almost somnambulant advance-and-retreat. 

Soon after Nora abruptly cuts off her long-distance flirtation with Hae Sung, she hooks up with and later marries Arthur, a novelist she meets at a writers’ retreat. The inclusion of this character, played by First Cow’s John Magaro, allows Past Lives to reach beyond the will-they-or-won’t-they of its set up and become an acutely powerful rumination on the nature and purpose of love. Magaro imbues the role with a strong sense of self that begins to evaporate as his wife engages her romantic imagination and native tongue with an interloper.

The final indelible segment is the film’s miraculous ending, when Nora sees Hae Sung off after they’ve spent a week together in New York, a dozen years after their last video call and nearly a quarter century since that magical day as children in a Korean park. Here, Song’s adroit writing and the hard work of actors Teo Yoo and the steely Greta Lee culminate in an emotional denouement as satisfying as it is devastating.

As the credits rolled, this critic cried; that was followed quickly by an audible “Whoa.” 

It’s a word Nora repeats with astonishment and authority both times she reconnects with Hae Sung, so much so that Lee may have effectively wrested away the title of that exclamation’s all-time greatest cinematic utterer from reigning champion Keanu Reeves. The churning emotions she conveys with that one word — fear, wonder, love — color every corner of Song’s movie, making Past Lives a remarkable and unforgettable artistic achievement.   

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Past Lives’ Review: A Wondrous And Deliriously Honest Romantic Drama