PAST LIVES – Review
In South Korea, two close childhood friends, a boy and a girl, both nearly 12, are separated when the girl’s family moves to the United States. Twelve years later, they reconnect, although he’s still in South Korea and she’s in New York, in Celine Song’s impressive drama PAST LIVES.
PAST LIVES is a romance of sorts but not like you imagine. What it is, however, is a moving drama with a brilliant script, brilliantly acted and filmed, and masterfully directed by Celine Song, who also wrote the script. Spanning decades and half the globe, PAST LIVES explores how once-close people both reconnect and diverge over time and distance.
One could describe PAST LIVES as an intelligent person’s romance. Making a romantic drama where the audience truly is on the edge of their seat is no mean feat, yet PAST LIVES does just that. In part it is because it avoids some of the tropes of romance but where some familiar elements are unavoidable, it breaks the rules by having the characters talk about them and dissect them, giving the feel of both realism, conveying the characters’ intelligence, and adding a sly humor.
As bright children and close friends in South Korea, she is the ambitious one, the girl who always gets the top grade, with her friend a close second, but who cries when that doesn’t happen. He is patient and supportive with the crying girl, as she calls herself, and he is comfortable in her shadow in second place.
She confesses to her sister that she has a crush on her friend.
He is distressed when she tells him the family is emigrating. She says it is because they want to give her, their gifted daughter, more opportunities to succeed. It is a bit more complicated than that, but at that time, South Korea is in economic doldrums.
Before the family leaves, the girls pick “American names” for themselves and she picks Nora. So Nora has a good last memory of her crush, the mothers arrange for Nora and Hae Sung to have a “date” in a playground, with the moms nearby.
Each pursue their education and career goals, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) as an engineer in South Korea and Nora (Greta Lee) as a playwright in New York. After 12 years, Hae Sung finds Nora online, and we realize that he shared her childhood crush.
PAST LIVES delivers a moving, bittersweet but refreshingly real drama that plays out over time, as the two both connect and don’t, while the time passes and cultural experiences diverge.
This is writer/director Celine Song’s debt feature film but you would never guess that, as she has long experience in theater. The story was inspired by a moment of personal experience, as she sat in a bar with her husband and her Korean childhood sweetheart, translating between them and realizing they would never have met but for her.
As Nora, Greta Lee impresses constantly, with her ability to portray Nora at various points in her life and to convey complex, nuanced emotions with startling clarity. Handsome Teo Yoo’s character is less expressive and open than Lee’s Nora, and the character’s opaqueness adds a layer of tension throughout the drama. While the film has a romantic thread, it also has a sustained tension. As these two progress in their lives and reconnect periodically, the drama also explores the immigrant experience over time, something rarely done.
It is hard to overstate how finely crafted, emotionally effective and dramatically efficient this drama is. On top of the script’s moving story and beautifully built structure, it is visually impressive, with spare use of striking shots at just the right moment. One of those comes late in the film, as the childhood friends talk with the Statue of Liberty in the background and another in the film’s final shot, one that goes back to the childhood.
PAST LIVES is an impressive drama, that combines a fresh and real take on romance with different tale of immigration, further elevated by excellent performances, strong and spare story-telling and skillful direction from Celine Song.
PAST LIVES opens Friday, June 23, in theaters.
RATING: 4 out of 4 stars