Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), two deeply connected childhood friends, are wrest apart after Nora's family emigrates from South Korea to Canada. After several years apart, they reconnect online and their friendship resumes quickly and deepens even further. However, Nora soon finds love with Arthur (John Magaro) and eventually marries him. After an extended absence, Hae Sung arrives in New York to meet Nora and her husband and finds their notion of fate and love challenged...
It's not very often that a movie like 'Past Lives' comes along. Romance dramas generally tend to deal with a specific kind of affair, one where there's an intense physical attraction that results in lots of heavy breathing and aggravated guilt. While there is an immediacy to this and explores the attendant circumstances, there's always something a little thin about it. In 'Past Lives', it's the exact opposite. There's such depth and substance to the relationship between Nora / Na Young and Hae Sung, and what's more, the consequences of following their desires are all the more real.
Set across a period of 24 years, 'Past Lives' moves and flows like a gentle breeze. It's all so understated and sparse in its execution, but equally, it has some beautifully composed shots paired with a gorgeous soundtrack from Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen, late of experimental indie rock band Grizzly Bear. It also helps that the two actors in the lead performances - Greta Lee and Teo Yoo - are both incredibly attractive and seem to have a natural chemistry with one another, even through a stuttering Skype connection. Celine Song, pulling double-duty as writer-director in her debut feature, knows exactly how to pitch and pace the story and make real consequences and stakes come alive in the story.
Neither of them is particularly old when they finally meet after so long, but they're at that stage of their lives where enough has been built that to tear it all down and start over again means upending almost everything they've known. More than that, it's the kind of destruction that's borne out of a deep unhappiness which isn't present in this story. Celine Song's incredible script - her first produced feature script - is made up of so many beautiful lines and scenes, but there are two in particular that underline this point. One is where Greta Lee and John Magaro are wrapped up in each other in bed, half-asleep, discussing the nature of romantic destiny. Lee's character makes the point that this, wrapped up in her husband's arms and idly contemplating chicken wings, is where she was meant to be. The other is later on when Hae Sung and Nora confront their feelings in a tense moment in a bar with her husband present and unable to translate their conversation.
John Magaro's character - in a moment that's a little too on the nose - points out his own place in this story as a probable villain standing in the way of their supposed love for each other. Indeed, there's a brief moment later when he first sees Hae Sung and Nora standing together and he acknowledges that they just look good together. It's kind of heartbreaking, especially when earlier on in the movie, Magaro's character talks about how much bigger his life is with his wife in it and how he hopes he's the same for her. It's here, in these stray moments, that make 'Past Lives' such a beautiful and mesmerising experience. There are no rain-drenched declarations of love, or sprinting full-speed to the airport to catch someone before they fly off. In fact, the final scene feels like a pointed rebuffing of this notion.
Instead, 'Past Lives' makes us examine the notion of romantic destiny without giving in to cliches and daft, trite metaphors.