February 8, 2023

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‘Past Lives’ Review: Celine Gunn’s Understated Sundance Stunner

4 min read

In “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost creates an easy-to-love poem. At one point, he envisions returning to that metaphorical fork one day to try another path: “Yet knowing how the path leads to the path, I doubted whether I should ever return.” In the disorienting study of the redundant possibilities that is “Past Lives,” playwright Celine Song creates a poem of the same situation, only this time, it’s a series of selections from her personal life — some she made herself, others decided for her by her parents — that become Makes us think about the possible.

Gun, who was born in South Korea, draws on his own history and culture for this truly special feature debut, a treasure that is at once poignantly autobiographical and disarmingly universal. His script – often short, bursting with words only when spoken – introduced the concept of “in-yun” to Western audiences, defining it as a way of reuniting cosmic souls who shared a connection in a previous life. It’s a beautiful concept, served very subtly, this low-key A24 offering could be a spiritual response to last year’s “everything everything at once”. Where Daniels’ movie took a surprising multiverse approach, “Past Lives” is simple, slow and direct. The characters in the song are free to speculate, but there is no going back. Or is there?

“Past Lives” takes place across three distinct time periods, similar to how “Moonlight” (another A24 film) dealt with memories and bonds formed during childhood. In the first episode, 12-year-old Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) moves from South Korea to Canada, leaving her first crush in the process. She has already decided that she wants to be a writer when she grows up. Yet, what could he possibly know about what his life might hold at that age? And what will he understand what is leaving?

By the time the film jumps forward a dozen years we haven’t quite gotten our bearings. The boy Hae Sung has grown up. Now played by Teo Yoo, he looks handsome, if uncomfortable in uniform, doing his mandatory military service in Korea. Na Young, who now goes with Nora (Greta Lee), has immigrated again, this time to New York City, where his studies lead him to become a playwright. By chance — or In-eun? — She noticed that Hae Sung posted on her father’s Facebook page. Nora is no longer the girl she once was, but she remembers Hae Sung very well and responds to his messages, over a series of video calls.

And then, almost as suddenly as that conversation started, he shuts it down. Twelve more years pass, and now Nora (still Lee) is married to Arthur (John Magaro), a fellow writer she met at an artist’s retreat. Hae Sung has long since disappeared from her life when she learns that he plans to visit New York for a week. As if by some inexorable gravitational pull, “Past Lives” seems headed toward this reunion from the start — and no wonder: The opening shows Nora sitting between Arthur and Hae Sung at a bar.

It is this tension that underlies the entire film, finally expressed in a dialogue that grips us like the walking-and-talking scene in Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise.” Ironically, “Past Lives” might be the opposite of that movie: It’s not about a spontaneous connection between strangers, but the power of tapping into a pre-established intimacy with someone you’ve known for a lifetime, and with whom it seems unfinished business men and Few films offer such revealing conversations between women.

The aforementioned bar scene is particularly noteworthy, as the song already devotes considerable attention to all three characters. No one gets angry, no one throws jealous punches. Nora’s husband is studying Korean (in one of the few unforgettable conversations, she explains that she reverts to her mother tongue when she talks in her sleep and wants to understand the hidden part of her). Hae Sung can manage a few words in English. But mostly, the two men in Nora’s life sit still, separated by a language barrier and the woman they love. And there he is, stuck in the middle, suspended between what is and what could be.

Using the same actors, Lee and Yuk in the middle and later parts of Nora’s life may not have been the right decision. There’s something cute but not yet informed about people in their early 20s, and the performers look very mature to convey it. That’s where Grizzly Bear collaborators Christopher Bear and Daniel Rosen’s music comes in: the score practically bubbles with potential during the scene where Nora and Hae Sang are video chatting — a youthful sound, by comparison, when the strings speak to what they’ve missed out on.

Considering Song’s background as a playwright, it might be surprising how much he believes in silence — or the absence of speech. Assisted by DP Shabia Kirchner, he recognizes the visual potential of cinema, often privileging observation over listening, as body language and surroundings (Seoul and New York play themselves) give viewers space to process. When the characters speak, they express themselves beautifully, such as in the hilarious meta scene where Arthur suggests that Nora use what’s happening in her work, then proceeds to analyze her role in the story.

For all the films made about love triangles, the song brings her full circle, defying many of the clichés in the process. Perhaps it’s because this ultra-personal project is about feelings other than passion – which develop over years and which allow a life to contain multiple loves.

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