Past Lives second look review: Celine Song explores the power of the unsaid

Director Celine Song’s emotionally rich debut feature finds the romance in roads not travelled with a sweeping story about childhood sweethearts reconnecting over 24 years.

Leem Seung-min and Greta Lee in Past Lives (2023)

Towards the end of Celine Song’s Past Lives, two old friends wait for a cab in front of a bright blue garage door. In the two minutes it takes for a car to arrive, both everything, and nothing happens. Writer and director Song is perhaps more attuned to rhythm of dialogue than most: like Nora Moon (Greta Lee), the protagonist of this feature debut, she made her name as a playwright. But Song is also sharply aware of the power of the unsaid, of what can be articulated through pauses and gestures. As the film swells to its emotional climax, not a word is spoken.

More than two decades earlier, in South Korea, 12-year-old Na Young (Moon Seung-ah) renames herself Nora as she prepares to emigrate to Canada with her family. Before they leave, she enjoys a playdate with her classmate and current crush, Hae Sung (Leem Seung-min). “He’s manly. I will probably marry him,” she tells her artist mother beforehand. They climb statues in the park, and hold hands in the car home. It’s a memory that stays with Nora well into her adult life, and one that becomes increasingly golden the longer it remains encased in amber.

Past Lives asks what would happen if Nora and Hae Sung were reunited, a question Nora is forced to confront at two distinct junctures in her life. They reconnect online before she meets her future husband Arthur (John Magaro), and then again in person, several years into her marriage. Song divides the film in three, each new section jumping forward in 12-year increments – gaps big enough for Nora to feel she has evolved into an entirely new person. Aged 12 she’s all potential, set on winning the Nobel Prize; at 24, she’s a graduate student, fresh to New York; when we meet her aged 36, she’s comfortably married and a successful playwright.

The film’s wistful, contemplative score, composed by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen of the indie band Grizzly Bear, twinkles and shimmers. The middle stretch of the film is set during that band’s imperial phase, in 2011, a year Song subtly evokes with references to Facebook stalking and Skype calls. Nora and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) video-call each other from opposite time zones, on buses and from their bedrooms, in clandestine corners of the library, oblivious to the outside world. Song stages the montage of their video calls at sunrise and twilight and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, shooting on 35mm, captures the particular glow of those liminal hours. But their connection keeps freezing and glitching, a reminder that the parameters of their Internet relationship are fuzzy. Tellingly, when Nora meets Arthur at an artist’s residency in Montauk, it’s in the blindingly clear light of day.

Greta Lee as Nora Moon in Past Lives (2023)

When Hae Sung re-enters Nora’s life as an adult, he triggers Nora’s unresolved feelings about her Korean identity. She’s touched by the way that he turns up to their date with snacks, a culturally specific expression of care, and attracted to the fact that he’s “really masculine in a way that’s really Korean”, as she puts it to Arthur. She’s less impressed, however, that he still lives with his parents. “If this was a story someone was telling, I’d be the evil white American husband keeping you two apart,” says Arthur, turning to Nora in bed. He tells her she’s been speaking Korean in her sleep, and worries she dreams in a language he can’t understand. As Nora’s mother puts it earlier in the film, “If you leave something behind, you gain something, too.”

Each of the film’s three main actors sells their specific agony. During drinks at an East Village bar, Nora sandwiched between the two men, Magaro’s face shifts seamlessly between awkwardness, resignation and a deep devotion to his wife. Hae Sung feels less developed but Yoo plays him with a shyness and quiet intensity, his face breaking into a delayed smile when Nora pulls him in for a tight hug. Glances that occur between Nora and Hae Sung hold a sexual charge, but the film is a chaste romance. For Song, longing is more erotic.

When Nora and Arthur first meet, she tells him about the Korean idea of ‘In-Yun’, describing it as the provenance of all relationships, an invisible force that draws two people together over several lifetimes. She impishly jokes that her spiel is “something Koreans say to seduce someone”. It’s Song’s way of allowing the audience to decide whether the characters are actually fated or not, knowing that the possibility is more romantic, higher stakes, and more cinematic, than spelling it out. 

 ► Past Lives is in UK cinemas from 8 September.