Past Lives: this astonishing debut luminously captures a world-spanning, decades-long love story

The first film by Korean Canadian playwright Celine Song, this achingly atmospheric drama charts 24 years in the lives of two Seoul mates separated in childhood and reunited many years later.

Past Lives (2023)
  • Reviewed from the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival

In its plain matter-of-factness, ‘Past Lives’ is an apt title for this poignant, slow-burn study of an enduring romance that both sneaks up on you and races ahead of expectations. The debut feature by playwright Celine Song, it follows roads taken and not taken by Korean-American urban sophisticate Nora (Greta Lee), who we first see across a crowded New York bar, sat between a white American (John Magaro) she’s largely neglecting and a Korean man (Teo Yoo) who’s getting almost all her attention. An anonymous stranger wonders in voiceover, “Who do you think they are?” Another says, “I have no idea.”

To find out, we’re sent back to Seoul ‘24 years earlier’, where two 12-year-old schoolkids are climbing a hill homeward. The girl, Na Young, is in tears because the boy, Hae-sung, has beaten her in a maths test for the first time. Ambition and stubbornness complicate their attachment, but severance is coming in any case. At home, Na Young’s parents are playing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’, which intimates three things: first, it tells you the parents are artistic types; second, Cohen being Canadian underscores the news that the family are about to emigrate to Toronto – they ask Na Young to choose a new Western name and she opts for Nora – and third, the song’s refrain presages the final scene of this sequence, where the two kids silently climb the same hill home for the last time.

A 12-year jump sees Hae-sung (clearly the Korean man from the opening scene, only younger) doing his military service, while Nora is an aspiring playwright in New York. Her efforts, aided by her mum, to find South Korean-appropriate dating prospects online lead her to stumble across an old Facebook inquiry from Hae-sung. Internet exchanges begin in intense curiosity. These are hardly ideal material for cinema, and yet the fluidity and assuredness with which they’re handled, the way the film washes us through images and moods of contrasting lives, adds to the increasing sense of wonderment that we’re watching a feature debut. Song, assisted no doubt by Keith Fraase’s subtle editing and Shabier Kirchner’s mood-perfect cinematography, shows astonishing control of the medium here, using the contrasts between Seoul and New York to heighten the separation between the two characters. Locations proliferate: Hae-sung wants to study Mandarin in Beijing to further his engineering career; Nora is off to Montauk for a writer’s retreat. The distance and disparity between them begin to seem unbridgeable. “You can’t cry in New York,” says Nora, a true habituée of the Big Apple, as she decides the long-distance game is all too much for her.

The leap to the present (another 12 years) brings into focus the triangulation of the opening scene. Nora is now married to Arthur, the American, a fellow writer she met in Montauk, and they nurture the kind of Manhattanite relationship recognisable from Noah Baumbach or Woody Allen movies, albeit more nuanced than those comparisons would suggest. Meanwhile, Hae-sung has booked a trip to New York and asks if Nora will see him. As the full implications of his visit sink in for Nora and Arthur, the film morphs again into an unforeseen self-reflexive mode in which Arthur’s view is central, but which I don’t want to spoil here by relating.

Past Lives is a semi-autobiographical film that knows how to make its conventions seem fresh, partly because it’s as much about how we project who we think we are as it is about reality. Is it sentimental? Yes, but with a certain tartness to the sweet things, a sense that being true to yourself can hurt more in an emigrant context. In a finely graded performance of terrific restraint, Lee embodies Nora’s conflicting emotions as much with her eyes and her poise as with her dialogue. Yoo and Magaro are soulfully sympathetic in distinctly characterised ways. The film has such a breadth of understanding and sensitivity that if you were to ask me what I like most about it, I could only say ‘everything’: allusion, symbolism, clothing, simple things like fragments of noir iconography or a red light shimmering in a puddle – all are handled so deftly you never want the spell to break. The transition from making theatre to directing feature films has produced many casualties. Celine Song is not one of them. She’s made the best feature debut I’ve seen in a long time.