Of all the writers retreats in all the summer towns in all of New York, he had to walk into hers. As the sun fades on a perfect Montauk night — setting the stage for a first kiss that, like so many of the most resonant moments in Celine Song’s transcendent “Past Lives,” will ultimately be left to the imagination — Nora (Greta Lee) tells Arthur (John Magaro) about the Korean concept of In-Yun, which suggests that people are destined to meet one another if their souls have overlapped a certain number of times before. When Arthur asks Nora if she really believes in all that, the Seoul-born woman sitting across from him invitingly replies that it’s just “something Korean people say to seduce someone.” Needless to say, it works.
But as this delicate yet crushingly beautiful film continues to ripple forward in time — the wet clay of Nora and John’s flirtation hardening into a marriage in the span of a single cut — the very real life they create together can’t help but run parallel to the imagined one that Nora seemed fated to share with the childhood sweetheart she left back in her birth country. She and Hae Sung (“Leto” star Teo Yoo) haven’t seen each other in the flesh since they were in grade school, but the ties between them have never entirely frayed apart.
On the contrary, they seem to knot together in unexpected ways every 12 years, as Hae Sung orbits back around to his first crush with the cosmic regularity of a comet passing through the sky above. The closer he comes to making contact with Nora, the more heart-stoppingly complicated her relationship with destiny becomes. And with each passing scene in this film — all of them so hushed and sacrosanct that even their most uncertain moments feel as if they’re being repeated like an ancient prayer — it grows easier to appreciate why Nora invoked In-Yun on that seismic Montauk night. Sure, maybe she really was just using it as a pick-up line, knowing that it would give her (neurotically Jewish) future husband the green light that he needed to make a move. But then again, what could possibly be more seductive to a person in this world than the promise of divine providence?
On paper, “Past Lives” might sound like a diasporic riff on a Richard Linklater romance — one that condenses the entire “Before” trilogy into the span of a single film. In practice, however, this gossamer-soft love story almost entirely forgoes any sort of “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane” dramatics in favor of teasing out some more ineffable truths about the way that people find themselves with (and through) each other. Which isn’t to suggest that Song’s palpably autobiographical debut fails to generate any classic “who’s she gonna choose?” suspense by the time it’s over, but rather to stress how inevitable it feels that Nora’s man crisis builds to a bittersweet quiver of recognition instead of a megaton punch to the gut. Here is a romance that unfolds with the mournful resignation of the Leonard Cohen song that inspires Nora’s English-language name; it’s a movie less interested in tempting its heroine with “the one who got away” than it is in allowing her to reconcile with the version of herself he kept as a souvenir when she left.
As we see in the first act of this fluid but unyieldingly linear film, Nora’s family makes the decision to leave Seoul when she’s still just a kid, and that choice has such a one-way impact on the trajectory of her life that her Korean has gotten rusty by the time she reconnects with Hae Sung over Skype in her twenties. His traditional Koreanness becomes a foreign object to her. Not only is it a kind of screen unto itself, but also one so impenetrable that Nora doesn’t even seem to notice how beautiful her former math rival has become as a grown man. (How convenient it is for both of these people that each of their childhood sweethearts turned out to be ridiculously attractive. And also inconvenient.) To her, Hae Sung is every Korean guy, and maybe even Korea itself. At the same time, he’s also the only man among a planet of billions who knows who Nora was before she was reborn into the hyphenate identity she’s maintained and expanded upon for her entire adult life. He knows the only Nora who Arthur will never be able to meet, and couldn’t hope to understand even if he did.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that Arthur is eventually going to out himself as the “evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.” Song’s raindrop-gentle screenplay refuses to paint any of its characters with such a broad and/or predictable brush; the people in “Past Lives” are a lot like the people in our own, which is to say scared and self-divided but generally kind.
Well, the men are scared, at least. The denial that Nora maintains as the meaning of Hae Sung’s impromptu third act visit to New York may not leave room for too many other emotions, but that only somewhat explains the headstrong poise that Lee brings to her role. The “Russian Doll” star infuses every lovely but inflexible line of Song’s writing with several compounded lifetimes of feeling.
Whether playing Nora as a twentysomething MFA student who finds Hae Sung on Facebook 1.0 with an eagerness that she can’t admit to, or as thirtysomething playwright who’s grieving a part of herself that she’ll never get back, Lee’s miraculous performance cuts to the heart of her character’s self-divided identity with the casual grace of a surgeon operating on a perfect stranger. She uses Nora’s personal confidence and creative ambition as a shield to protect herself from what might have been, which makes the rare moments when she lowers her guard feel almost unbearably vulnerable. It also makes it easy to understand why, despite the strength of her internet connection with Hae Sung, Nora can’t stand the thought of immigrating twice — first to Toronto, and then to Manhattan — only to end up with a guy from Seoul.
The absolute immediacy of Lee’s performance allows you to feel every frame of “Past Lives” on your skin, which is crucial to a film that conveys the brunt of its meaning through sense instead of story; a film that commands its placid rhythms and ethereal fussiness with a confidence that elevates Song’s “people don’t talk like that” dialogue into a decisive plus. Magaro and Yoo have no trouble matching Lee’s tempo — both actors are endearing without ever seeming dishonest, with Yoo in particular owning his character’s hopeless romanticism with enough authority that Hae Sung never seems opportunistic or self-pitying.
Every other facet of the film conspires to strengthen the semi-heightened reality that its cast puts into motion. Shabier Kirchner’s long-lens 35mm cinematography emphasizes the threat of distance inherent to Song’s meticulous compositions (at one point a character is framed out of a shot in a way that made me gasp), Grace Yun’s production design splits the difference between “pressurized romance” and “too-precious fairy tale,” while Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s crystalline score allows the movie to find its proper time signature right from the start.
“Past Lives” may be divided into three distinct sections, but its fractured chronology never feels particularly elliptical. There are no “jumps” here — no “12 years later.” It’s always “12 YEARS PASS,” a pointed word choice that conveys the feeling of time slipping through Nora’s fingers and pooling at her feet, as it should be in a movie that isn’t about a woman trying to decide between two men so much as it’s a movie about someone trying to square the “no do-overs” nature of life with the immigrant feeling that hers has started two or three times over. Einmal ist keinmal, as the German saying goes: “What happens but once might as well not have happened at all.”
That tension puts an extra pressure on every moment of Song’s film, especially as Nora begins to more explicitly confront what it means for the world to only spin forward. The rare missteps here reverberate with a volume disproportionate to whatever sound they make in the moment, to the point that something as benign as the movie’s needless final shot linger in the memory like a stain the size of the Chrysler Building. But even that is apropos for a story about the little parts of our lives that grow so big in the rear-view mirror that they threaten to overwhelm everything else we can see, and a story that has no room for regret. “If you leave something behind,” Nora’s mom says at the start of this extraordinary film, “you gain something too.” I suppose that depends on who you choose to leave it with, and what they’re able to give you back in (eternal) return.
“Past Lives” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release it in the United States later this year.
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