In Celine Song’s brilliant “Past Lives,” each subtle brush with affection is a spark that could—and sometimes does—lead to something more. The film explores the tender feelings of relationships at various stages, from budding playground crushes to adulthood’s alleged certainty. It’s the kind of nuanced movie that allows for self-reflection as well as entertainment, following two characters who illustrate how relationships—both fully realized and not—influence our lives.
As a child in South Korea, Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) crushes on another boy in her class, Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim). Their relationship is just starting when her parents decide to move to Canada. The two childhood friends drift apart as their lives move on in different countries. Twelve years later, Na Young—now Nora (Greta Lee)—is an aspiring playwright in New York City. Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) is an engineering student back in Seoul who never stopped thinking about his childhood sweetheart. The pair reconnect over Facebook, and soon, their lives revolve around regular Skype calls, time differences be damned. However, with no sign that either one of them is willing to upend their early careers, the stream of video calls stop. Nora and Hae Sung’s lives continue over another 12 years before they reconnect again. Hae Sung finally visits New York and brings up all the feelings they thought they had left behind.
Song’s feature debut is a masterclass in storytelling. A playwright before jumping into film, her focus is visually and narratively on Nora and Hae Sung, making the world around them seem to dreamily melt around them when they’re in each other’s company. There is a special connection between them, even if it never had the chance to take root physically. Every longing stare, late-night video call, unsent email, or excited smile details the trajectory of their relationship. The characters’ ample dialogue in Song’s script moves the audience not with dramatic overtures but with realistic conversations that reveal vulnerable emotions.
Tenderly framed by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, “Past Lives” gives us careful close-ups of Nora’s face and Hae Sung’s expressive reactions as vividly as any line of dialogue. During their long-delayed reunion, the pair move seamlessly from basking in the glow of magic hour on Brooklyn’s waterfront to sunny trips on the ferry to street-lit walks in the East Village. It’s a playful comparison to the movie’s earlier setting in Seoul, where, as children, Hae Sung and Na Young took hilly routes home and play among modern sculptures in a park. No matter where they meet, the camera creates a sense of their connection, of the feeling that nothing else around them matters as much as this moment.
While it is first and foremost a love story, “Past Lives” ventures beyond romantic yearning and burning questions. For Song, it’s also the chance to express feelings about the immigrant experience. Before leaving her home country, Nora’s mom justifies the couple’s choice to move the family abroad: “If you leave something behind, you gain something, too.” It’s a sentiment echoed through Nora’s life as her experiences lead her to a career in New York City and married life with a kindhearted writer named Arthur (John Magaro). But it’s a departure from the world she once knew as a child, and she confesses that she rarely even speaks Korean these days. When filling in her husband on meeting her girlhood crush, Nora confesses, “I feel so not Korean when I’m with him,” bringing up what sounds like insecurity about her own relationship with her culture.
Song makes Nora and Hae Sung’s mutual background an integral part of “Past Lives,” like a secondary connection beyond their personal interests. He represents the life not lived because she moved away—that something left behind for something else to be gained. Their shared language is something her American husband can’t keep up with, functionally giving them a private conversation even when he’s at a bar with them. But sharing something doesn’t mean they share the same feelings, as seen in the movie’s running motif of In-Yun, the encounters in past lives that can influence your connections in the present. It’s something Nora laughs off with Arthur during their first meeting at a writers’ retreat but that Hae Sung takes seriously when reflecting on his long-delayed visit to New York. They are, as the movie literally depicts, on two different paths. If at heart, they’re still the kids who first locked eyes with each other.
With much of the film focused on Nora and Hae Sung, Lee and Yoo step up to the challenge with a lived-in sense of ease and grace. Their characters’ excitement to talk to one another is natural; their meandering conversations feel real. How Lee and Yoo look at each other creates the impression of a long backstory without so much as uttering a word. Their faces show their characters’ restrained emotions just under the surface of a polite smile, but just one heavy sigh is enough to break the tears out to mourn the love that was never meant to be, the life that was never theirs, and a childhood that grows more distant with the years.