Past Lives is an exquisite film made with great precision and care about what could have been, even if what could have been does not mean it should have been. Forgive me; it’s a hard film to pin down. That it’s exquisitely affecting and made with great precision and care is enough for now. No need to make a song and dance about it. Indeed, as Past Lives so deftly shows, you can have an excellent drama without any of the drama.
This is a first film from Celine Song, who is Canadian-Korean and otherwise a playwright. It opens with a scene in New York where three people are sitting at a bar and an unseen pair are trying to guess what their stories are, as you do. (‘Is the white guy her husband? No, she’s not even talking to him.’) What has brought this trio together?
The film then spools back 24 years to Seoul where Na Young and Hae Sung are 12 years old and best friends, even if she sulks when he achieves a better grade than her. ‘I’m probably going to marry him one day,’ she tells her mother. But their relationship is upended when her family emigrates to Canada and they cease all contact for 12 years.
Na Young (Greta Lee), who now calls herself Nora, is an aspiring playwright living in Manhattan when she decides to look up Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) online – as you do. They Skype and text and there’s still a bond but then she calls it off on the grounds that she needs to ‘commit’ to her life in America. There are times when we don’t quite understand her thinking. (Does she want to deny the Korean part of her?) But then neither does she.