In the best of circumstances, two people meet at exactly the right moment and are able to proceed on a path together to forge a relationship. But the timing doesn’t always work out like that, and one person being available and interested may not coincide with the other. The sense of loss that can come from a missed opportunity is difficult to calibrate and truly comprehend, but that doesn’t stop people from getting hung up on it. Past Lives presents a stirring story in three acts of two people who might have been perfect for each other, had things worked out just a bit differently.
Na Young (Moon Seung-ah) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) grow up together in Seoul, where they are close friends as twelve-year-olds in school. Na Young soon moves to Toronto with her family, where she changes her name to Nora. Twelve years later, Nora (Greta Lee) jokingly looks Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) up online, only to discover that he has been searching for her, and the two begin a series of regular flirtatious conversations over Skype. Things have changed for both of them another twelve years later, but neither has forgotten the connection they had, which just never quite worked based on their geographical distance and the inconvenient timing.
Past Lives is a film that subsists almost entirely on dialogue, charting the relationship these two childhood friends forged in three very separate moments of their life. At age twelve, they compete for the best grades and consider romance ahead of Nora’s departure. At twenty-four, Hae Sung is fresh out of the army and Nora is thriving in New York. At thirty-six, they have matured but remain the same people they used to be, and any true progressions revert immediately when they are finally in the same place at the same time, unsure of how to speak to each other but quickly reminded that they are not strangers.
Writer-director Celine Song makes an astounding debut with this very intimate, inviting film that feels equally comfortable in all three of the time periods it takes place. Equally skilled are her actors. Lee has stolen scenes as a fast-talking, generally impolite character in TV series like The Morning Show and Russian Doll, and here she switches effortlessly between Korean and English in a depiction of someone less aggressive but still self-assured. Yoo, who recently appeared in Decision to Leave, is also opinionated but has a different perspective based on his particular trajectory. John Magaro is also a memorable member of the cast as a romantic interest for Nora.
This film is wonderfully accessible and warm, checking in with its two characters for almost the entirety of the film, allowing their changing relationship to guide its course. The world exists just for them, with no distracting supporting characters or subplots that have nothing to do with them or their journey. That impressive focus pays off, since they are both magnetic and the chemistry that Lee and Yoo have with each other conveys such a complicated bond that might be infinitely simpler had their lives not diverged.
The film’s title invokes the Korean notion of In-Yun, which posits that people have past lives that play into their current existences, and that sentiment makes this story feel even more magical and energizing. Though things don’t always work out for these two people, there’s something endearing and very poignant about the way in which they keep managing to find each other, even from halfway across the world. And even if they aren’t able to do so with each other, it’s hard not to fall in love with these characters and the potential of their love story.
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Past Lives makes its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section and will be released later this year by A24.