Writer-director Celine Song’s beautiful debut film follows a pair of Korean childhood sweethearts who eventually reunite in person after 24 years. It’s a nuanced, careful work that will resonate strongly with everyone who has loved and lost, as well as offering a warning of possible heartbreak ahead for those who haven’t.
In Seoul, 12-year-olds Nora and Hae Sung walk home together each day and compete to be top of the class until Nora’s family emigrates to Canada. A dozen years pass before they reconnect online, with Nora now a budding New York playwright and Hae Sung stuck in Korea. From their first Skype call it’s clear that the adult Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Decision to Leave’s Teo Yoo) still have a deep affection for each other – feelings expressed with subtlety rather than cheesy, overblown sentiment by the elegant screenplay. Hae Sung promises to visit but Nora can’t wait forever – who can? – and when Nora meets Arthur (John Magaro from Kelly Reichardt’s equally exquisite First Cow) at a writer’s retreat romance blossoms with him instead.
It all leads up to a final act another 12 years on when Hae Sung’s belatedly visits the now-married Nora in New York. And it’s absolutely as emotionally devastating as you’d expect.
It’s even comparable with Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece In the Mood for Love
Song knows this terrain inside out, as a one-time émigrée Korean who moved to Canada and then to the Big Apple to become a playwright – and it really shows. Given Past Lives’ graceful authenticity, she must have experienced something of the crushing heaviness faced by Nora and Hae Sung too. There aren’t many fair points of comparison to what she’s conjured up for her first film, although Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece In the Mood for Love seems a reasonable one. She’s opened her feature account with a work whose treasures will repeatedly resurface in the mind.
Past Lives was reviewed at the Berlin International Film Festival.