Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
By Matthew Eng
Dir. Celine Song, U.S./South Korea, A24
A man and a woman grip the same subway pole, facing each other in quiet awe, their hands separated by mere centimeters. Past Lives, the calm, clear-eyed filmmaking debut of the New York-based, Korean-Canadian playwright Celine Song, is powered by the anticipation that the emotional, temporal, and physical distances that separate any two people might potentially be traversed by a Facebook message, an overseas flight or the meeting of two hands along a metal stanchion.
The two people in question are Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). As adolescents growing up in Seoul at the turn of the millennium, Nora (then going by her birth name of Na Young and played by Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) were classmates and would-be sweethearts, until Nora’s family immigrated to Toronto, at the behest of her filmmaker father (Choi Won-young), ending their nascent romance. Written and directed by Song, Past Lives traces the arc of the pair’s indefinable, decades-spanning bond, from their childhood infatuation to their all-consuming reconnection-via-Skype as college students to their reunion, in which Hae Sung, an engineer still based in Seoul, visits Nora in New York, where she lives and works as a playwright… with her husband, Arthur (John Magaro).
Delicacy is a virtue in Song’s storytelling. She plumbs the complexities of Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship while crafting a film that floats across the screen like a gentle wind. But its briskness is a comfort that threatens to chill. Shot by the gifted cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, who brought multihued radiance and striking tactility to the many different places and faces of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (2020), Past Lives retains a beguiling luminosity, even when the sights (city skylines, lapping waves, fluttering leaves, sunrises and sunsets) verge on cliché. But Song, whose own background is clearly the blueprint for Nora’s, knows that her actors are the heart of her film and trusts them to express the yearning and uncertainty that vibrate underneath the film’s tranquility. She and Kirchner keep the camera trained on her stars and let the seconds tick, lingering in their long, painful, tongue-tied pauses, from which editor Keith Fraase declines to cut away. This approach captures the actors’ detailed beats, like the way Nora pulls away from hugging Hae Sung the second that he eases into her embrace, his shock at the flesh-and-blood of her finally subsiding. It is a deep and rewarding pleasure to watch these actors sink into their characters, without any imperative to play or conform to a type, still a rarity for Asian performers working in American movies, independent or otherwise.
Many viewers will likely recognize Lee as a fixture of cable and streamer comedies, the frenzied figure unnerving Allison Williams on Girls or squealing a birthday greeting at Natasha Lyonne on Russian Doll. Lee’s dry wit and incandescent sangfroid are assets, but they also serve a nuanced purpose as the carapaces and coping mechanisms of a character revealed to be far less sure-footed than she appears. Yoo (virtually unknown to me before Past Lives, though he did have a cameo in last year’s Decision to Leave) has the more emotionally intricate role, building and sustaining a more immediate and impassioned connection to his costar and his audience. He evinces enough tenderness to make the heart ache, whether staring back at Lee on a computer screen with pleading eyes and hunched shoulders, abashedly admitting “I missed you,” or nervously awaiting her arrival in the park, futzing with his tucked shirt and newly strapping posture. The latter moment represents Past Lives at its most relaxed and arresting, catching its characters unawares, living with them in transitory and meandering interludes as they prepare the polished versions of themselves that they strive to present to the world.
The chasteness with which Nora and Hae Sung interact crates a kind of tension—for how long can it be sustained? Will they continue to ignore the force field of amorous curiosity that no amount of chitchat can completely neutralize? Song toys with our expectations, as when the pair seem to be surrounded by nothing but blissful, PDA-heavy couples during a “date” to Jane’s Carousel at Brooklyn Bridge Park. But such chasteness also feels true to the status of their attachment, which is still frozen in the amber of remembered youth.
“If you leave something behind, you gain something too,” Nora’s mother (Ji Hye Yoon) sagely tells Hae Sung’s mother (Min Young Ahn) as their children enjoy their first and last playdate before Nora’s family moves abroad. It’s an unfortunately clunky line of dialogue, indicative of the ways in which Song can be too keen to telegraph and verbalize her film’s conflicts and themes rather than visualize them. In certain scenes, like an extended bedtime conversation between Nora and her husband (a secondary character enhanced by Magaro’s sweetly flummoxed performance) that touches on the latter’s whiteness and insecurity in the marriage, Song betrays her characters’ self-awareness of their personal dynamics and narrative functions.
These meditative dialogues, by turns blunt and precise, jut against the film’s odd elisions, which are at once frustrating and fascinating to ponder when reading Past Lives as a diaspora narrative. Why is teenage Nora’s assimilation in North America glided over with the clang of a school bell? Why is Hae Sung’s later-in-life girlfriend granted a prominent introduction only to be summarily dismissed from the film? Why do Nora’s and Hae Sung’s fathers hover at the edges, drifting through their scenes like unheeded ghosts?
Perhaps lingering on any one of these subplots and tertiary characters would have stolen too much focus from Nora and Hae Sung. The casual conviction of Song and her actors keeps us believing in the mythic dimensions of this missed connection and intrigued by the infinite what-if scenarios that brew between these two people. The magic of Song’s film lies in its ability to create an air of expectancy during even the most humdrum chatter. Watching Lee and Yoo amiably ramble or lock eyes in pockets of silence, we are always considering where the flow of time might lead them. This is a film about two people contemplating the possibilities of what could have been and what still might be, but it is also about the electric charge and covert forces that draw two bodies and souls together.
Past Lives culminates in a moment of unbearable, breath-holding suspense in which, shockingly for this hyper-articulate film, words fail its characters. How suddenly flimsy the reassurances sound, how futile the philosophizing when they are face to face with fate or maybe just attraction. There are no pat answers here, only the sense that something has been unleashed that can never be recaptured and contained. This could be love, desire, or a home that exists less in a physical realm than a place in the mind, a somebody you used to know.