Having cut her teeth as a playwright, Celine Song’s directorial debut Past Lives has the air of an American stage play. Principally concerned with a reunion between two childhood sweethearts, one contentedly married, the other recently dumped, it’s a small film of big emotions. A forty-eight-hour time window in which twenty-four years of longing and missed opportunities are brought to the surface.

Our two players are Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), childhood companions who follow each other everywhere. It can’t be overstated the difficulty in writing dialogue for children, and Song is to be applauded for laying the groundwork so well. As children Nora and Hae Sung get precious little screentime and yet so much of it is imbued with possibility. We see the happy, healthy chemistry they have with each other, at once exciting but supportive. Only for the relationship to be destroyed when Nora’s parents abruptly emigrate to Toronto. Her departure is far from the tearful, theatrical separations we see in films with less restraint but instead a quietly sad moment in which they separate at a fork in the road.

Over the next twenty-four years Nora and Hae Sung only interact again briefly, through a handful of Skype calls. One that perfectly communicates the kind of familial rapport they had as children but also the impersonal nature of such a relationship. You share their jubilation at having found each other and their sadness at such an insubstantial connection. Eventually it becomes too much and the two move on, finding other partners.

Fast forward to the present day and Nora is now married in New York with Arthur (John Magaro) in a relationship that, while not brimming with passion has the kind of pleasant domesticity that long-term couples fall into. Hae Sung meanwhile has broken up with his Chinese girlfriend and with his life at an impasse decides to holiday in New York and reconnect with Nora. Their reunion has the kind of gentle affection reminiscent of their play as children. The chance of romance is always in the air, just not possible under the current circumstances.

What follows is some of the most soulful, human exchanges of dialogue between two characters. To anyone passing by Nora and Hae Sung might look like any other tourists but even their most mundane conversations are layered with a shared history and desire. Inevitably certain tropes rear their heads; Arthur can’t help but fall into the trap of the jealous husband, as much as Magaro tries to rationalise his anxieties there are moments when he comes across as frightfully insecure.

As the third acts rolls around Hae Sung and Nora’s exchanges veer increasingly towards the kind of weighty analysis that only occurs in stage plays. However, Song keeps it grounded in the Korean concept of ‘Inyun’, the past lives which give the film its title. Dismissed as a cheap seduction technique by the now Korean American Nora, but an immutable fact of life for Hae Sung who remains steadfastly ‘Korean Korean’. Greta Lee plays it all with steely resolve, to the point where there’s never any real fear that these two will run away together. But there remains an emotional connection that she cannot ignore, and to see Hae Sung go is to see it unfulfilled.

Past Lives is a small film, but a sweet one. Complimented by minimalist aesthetics and a charming score that slips easily into the background. It all serves to reinforce the significance of the mundane. How two thoroughly ordinary people, leading ordinary lives can carry lifetimes upon lifetimes of epic emotional weight, expressed by nothing more than two friends at a crossroads.

Past Lives
Previous articleAfire Review – EIFF 2023
Next articleSuitable Flesh Review – FrightFest 2023
past-lives-reviewA small, sweet but ultimately soulful film, a triumph for Celine Song and a beautifully unwrapped gift for audiences.