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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Past Lives // Film Review

“Who do you think they are to each other?”

Much has already been written about the ostensible mumblecore romance of Past Lives (which released in the United States back in July, months before its international debut this September), but in truth if Celine Song’s debut as a writer/director fits any one genre, it is more acutely a ghost story. It is a film about communication, and the fear of rekindling with lost relationships without knowing quite what to say should you find them. A recurring motif is the idea of in-yun, a Korean form of predestination wherein those who loved each other in one life are fated to encounter each other again in the next.

Although Past Lives is centred on the relationship between Nora/Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), its three act structure plays around with time to fit this motif, as each period of their lives is portrayed like a new generation. Consequently, their every encounter feels like a meeting between two totally new people, to the effect that the love they had for one another feels increasingly like a fantasy they can't quite let go.

Each sequence within Past Lives takes us further away from its one truly romantic moment; the childhood fling between a young Na Young and Hae Sung as crushing schoolchildren in South Korea. Their budding connection is brought to a sudden close when Na Young’s parents decide to emigrate to New York for reasons nobody can quite explain to the daughter most affected by their choice. She is assured that change can and generally is for the best, but is also asked to change her her name to something more American, ala ‘Nora’.

Over the twenty-four years to follow, Song deploys a full arsenal of tricks and techniques to portray the various brief encounters between Nora and Hae Sung. Facebook stalking, glacially slow texting and stuttering Skype calls take up much of the film’s middle act, during which time Nora gradually settles into a more typically American way of life while Hae Sung struggles to progress at all, becoming stunted and spoiling several relationships in the process. The depiction is that of a viciously quiet drama, short on laughs, shouts or waterworks, rarely even allowing conversations to run uninterrupted for more than a few lines (hence the mumblecore branding). There is an irresistible anguish to watching the deteriorating relationship between these two genuine, once-romanticised figures and Song plays it out for all that it's worth.

Finding the engagement in such mundanity is no small feat, and Song wisely offsets her story's muted qualities by embellishing each scene with sharp dialogue and a deeply expressive visual style. Whereas New York is portrayed as a grand, lived in city full of moving parts, South Korea is little more than a blur; a fading backdrop as Hae Sung remains glued to his phone and laptop screen, just waiting for Nora to call. For a film entirely about two characters incapable of honesty with themselves or one another, Song’s eye for imagery tells us everything we need to know.

All of this culminates in a breathtaking third act which will go largely unspoiled, except to say that it inverts the film’s typical tricks to bring time to a pause, turning a nearly-uneventful forty-eight hours into some of the most measured and nonetheless exhausting drama to hit screens this year. As Song crescendos towards her finale, her script eschews dialogue entirely, relying entirely on staging and theatrics to end this ghost story with a farewell for the ages. While Lee and Yoo handle themselves perfectly with Song’s playfully witty writing style, they truly shine here as silent performers wearing twenty-four years on their faces without the crutch of their typically broken, stumbling words.

In short, Past Lives is an utter triumph in doing what cinema does best; re-scaling a small and universally familiar story into a tragedy of immense and brutally honest proportions. It is more thrilling still for being Song’s debut as both a feature writer and director, revealing an aptitude second-to-none for capturing the essence of two wholly lived-in characters within a tight, sub-two hours frame. At the time of writing, Song is tapped for an Oscar come next Spring, and in the opinion of this writer it is destined to be the first of many.


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