What is love?
That is the question Past Lives, Celine Song’s directorial feature debut, strives to answer. It is well-trodden territory, of course. Through art, philosophy, religion, and politics, society has interrogated love’s idiosyncrasies for millennia, and it’s doubtful we will stop anytime soon. And yet, the conclusions Past Lives draws feel wholly unique, even revolutionary. It feels like a film that could shift the calculus of what love means and looks like.
In Past Lives, Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) are childhood friends living in Seoul, South Korea. They walk home from school together, compete with their grades, and develop an infatuation that their parents encourage with supervised dates to the local sculpture park. Their connection is abruptly severed when Na Young’s family immigrates to Canada. Twelve years pass before Na Young, now going by Nora (Greta Lee), and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) reconnect on social media. Their childhood spark persists, but their separate college lives keep them from fully exploring it. They eventually cease contact, with Nora falling in love and marrying fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro). Finally, after another 12 years, Hae Sung and Nora reconnect in person when he visits New York on vacation. His presence forces the pair to grapple with their enduring connection and what it means to their present lives.
Are Nora and Hae Sung soulmates? Past Lives knows the audience is considering the question, and actively engages the impulse. Song’s stunningly assured direction evokes an atmosphere that supports readings of kismet for her star-crossed potential lovers. She frames Nora and Hae Sung in gentle panning shots and off-center stills that suggests a deep intimacy between them that we’re intruding on. Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s gorgeous score elevates Nora and Hae Sung’s lovely, aching interactions to an entrancing, mystical plane. Song’s script takes it a step further by introducing “In-Yun,” a concept of Korean culture that some people are destined to find each other in their past, present, and future lives. The concept is deeply compelling and hopelessly romantic; even Arthur remarks how his and Nora’s marriage pales in comparison to her and Hae Sung’s cosmic connection.
Whether Nora and Hae Sung are soulmates is besides Past Lives’ point. Song is more interested in exploring how the concept of soulmates fits into the realities of her characters’ lives. Hae Sung is particularly committed to his relationship with Nora, taking the tentative first steps both times to find her. However, his insecurities and adherence to traditional customs hold him back, and he chooses taut silence over fully sharing his feelings. Nora feels their connection, over Skype and in the streets of Brooklyn, but she is pragmatic. However alluring Hae Sung may be, she knows that their lives are incompatible. It’s more complicated than bad timing or an inopportune husband. When Nora left Seoul for Toronto, she also left behind the person who could’ve loved Hae Sung. Even if every barrier between them didn’t exist, it wouldn’t change that they aren’t the same people.
That doesn’t lessen how deeply and exquisitely Past Lives aches. What’s even better and takes the film into the cinematic stratosphere is that ache’s resolution. The final act is radically honest and empathic, as the trio reconcile the complex web of feelings between them. Their conversations can be difficult, awkward, painful, and heartwarming, but Song grounds each one in remarkable grace. Arthur comforts Nora as she grieves for an unattainable love. Hae Sung and Arthur come to their own sense of “in-yun.” Nora and Hae Sung acknowledge that their feelings are real, but belong to another place and time. That their conversations never lean into superficial melodrama makes the close of their collective chapter all the more shattering.
Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro do exemplary work bringing that shared experience to vivid life. Lee has a quiet but utterly commanding presence on screen, filled with wit and disarmingly natural charm. She seems so effortless that it might be easy (and foolish) to discount the thought behind every choice. Yoo is revelatory, perfectly capturing the film’s quiet but agonizing yearning. He wears Hae Sung’s emotions – his nervousness, desire, fear – openly on his face and through his broad posture while still conveying the timidity and emotional distance that restricts him. Lee and Yoo build a breathless, intoxicating romantic tension that pulses whether they share the same frame or not. Magaro, meanwhile, lends Arthur a startling layer of emotional vulnerability and self-awareness that bolsters the painful truth that there are no winners in this scenario.
But how true is that, really? Past Lives rejects the relatively simplistic view that love, especially in this circumstance, is a zero-sum game. Song insists with radiant clarity in her film that love is malleable in both perception and reality. In its purest form, stripped of malice and grounded in trust and compassion, one can define love in whatever way enriches their soul. Nora, Arthur, and Hae Sung learn this over the course of 25 years. While their hearts are undoubtedly bruised from their shared experience, you feel that they will be stronger and lovelier because of it. Luckily for audiences, Past Lives’ central conclusion only requires roughly two hours to take in. You likely won’t spend a better two hours anywhere else this year.
Past Lives opens nationwide in the US on June 23rd.