Past Lives ★★★1/2
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Carousel of Time
“Past Lives” opens in a bar in New York City. It’s 4 a.m., and we hear off-screen Americans trying to figure out the relationships among three people seated across from them at the bar, without being able to hear what the three are saying. Two—a man and woman—are Asian, and a third is a white man, seated to their right and not saying much, while the other two talk. Though they can sense the discomfort and distance of the white man, the observers are uncertain about what is going on. Who’s married to whom? Are they siblings? Co-workers?
Above, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), Nora (Greta Lee) , and Arthur (John Magaro)
in a bar at 4 a.m. "Who's married to whom? Are they siblings? Co-workers?"
That scene is reprised near the end of the film, and this time we can hear what’s being said, and we know more than those curious Americans. But even then, the answer to “what is going on?” remains less than obvious. That’s the virtue of first-time director Celine Song’s wonderfully subtle and captivating film.
Hae Sung (Leem Seung-min) and Na Young (Moon Seung-ah)
as they separate at age 12, in Korea.
The story unfolds in three time periods. The first shows the two “Asians”—Na Young and Hae Sung—as 12-year-olds in Seoul, South Korea, experiencing a moment of puppy love before Na Young’s professionally-minded parents emigrate to Ontario, Canada, bringing Na Young with them; the screenplay defines her as “one who leaves.” (Song made the same emigration trek when she was 12.)
Greta Lee’s performance perfectly captures Nora’s unusual mix of radiant charm and studied reserve that defines the character and drives the film.
Fast-forward 12 years: Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) is an engineering student in Seoul (the screenplay defines him as “one who stays”), and Na Young (now calling herself Nora, possibly a reference to Nora Helmer of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”) is an aspiring writer in New York City. They find each other on the internet, one purposefully and the other as a lark, and develop a ”Zoom” connection, at once tense and intense, and circumspect. Later, Nora (Greta Lee) will ask, revealingly, “Why did you try to find me?” At a Montauk writer’s retreat, 24-year-old Nora meets fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro), the white guy in the bar. Lee, Yoo, and Magaro are all experienced actors, though in supporting roles. You might recognize Lee as Stella from TV’s “The Morning Show” and Yoo from “Decision to Leave” (2022). Lee’s performance perfectly captures Nora’s unusual mix of radiant charm and studied reserve that defines the character and drives the film.
Twelve years later. Nora, now a modestly successful playwright, and Arthur, her husband of 7 years, a published writer, enjoy their separate careers while sharing genuine affection for each other and an endearing physical intimacy that is real enough.
Until, that is, Hae Sung comes to town for a weekend. Arthur is nothing if not accommodating, though he’s also deeply concerned and even hurt. In a bedroom scene—literally in the bed—he argues against his self-interest, coming across as an insecure sad sack. He applies his understanding of stories and narrative arcs to his relationship with Nora (pedestrian, transactional, and there’s a green card involved) and to Nora’s with Hae Sung (the classic arc of romance: true love thwarted, then, inevitably, revived). “My story can’t compete with his,” Arthur laments. Nora has introduced Arthur to the Buddhist idea of In Yun, with its sense of providence, of a relationship that crosses past and future lives, with 8,000 layers—and he suspects that what he and Nora have, meaningful as it is, is not that.
"Past Lives" is a worthy addition to what may be the most creative and prolific movie industry today, South Korea’s.
Arthur is a weak character, in fact played too weakly to hold up his end of the potential love triangle. (In contrast, Hae Sung is decidedly masculine, though each man is insecure in his relationship with Nora.) And the film’s deliciously slow pace and understated emotional tension don’t need the heavy-handed score to drive the audience’s reactions. These are quibbles in a work that’s a worthy addition to what may be the most creative and prolific movie industry today, South Korea’s, one that’s recently given us “Decision to Leave,” “In Our Prime” (2022), and “Parasite,” winner of the 2019 Academy Award for Best Picture.
Arthur (John Magaro) is played weakly, and is insecure
in his relationship with his wife, Nora (Greta Lee).
One might at first think of “Past Lives” as a familiar story about two people meant for each other getting a second chance. Similarly, it’s tempting to see Nora as some version of the committed careerist, foregoing and foreclosing real romance—whether puppy love, the Zoom flirtation, even, perhaps, the soul-mate next to her in the bar—for success as a playwright. But these interpretations would do an injustice to Song’s screenplay, which steers clear of feminist pronouncements and marital disputes such as whose job should take priority. It also has only one, minimal scene—in which Nora doesn’t say a word—involving the production of her new play.
The film is well-stocked with bridges—-bridges over the Hudson, a photo of a bridge on the wall of Hae Sung’s New York hotel room—that function symbolically. Bridges can unite (as they do Brooklyn and Manhattan), but they are also “crossings,” a word that appears in Nora’s script and that signifies not only separation, but something akin to determinism: “Some crossings you pay for with your life.”
Hardly the iconic feminist, Nora is driven neither by ideology nor by ambition. Life happens, and it sweeps her along.
Though a romantic, Hae Sung isn’t a simple character; after all, for “one who stays” he has managed to find his way to New York City, and to Nora. Arthur is interesting, too, in his neurotic Jewish way, learning a little Korean in a doomed effort to make contact with “that whole place inside of you that I cannot go.” Yet this is unquestionably Nora’s film, and it’s her psyche, her sense of herself in the world, that director Song seeks to probe and understand. Hardly the iconic feminist, Nora is driven neither by ideology nor by ambition. Life happens, and it sweeps her along.
"We're captive on the carousel of time": Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora (Greta Lee)
talk about their places in life in front of a Brooklyn carousel.
Unlike Hae Sung, who can imagine what their lives might have been, Nora is grounded in a powerful, albeit comfortable and functional, reality: her parents leave for Toronto, and she leaves with them; when Arthur suggests that she might have met someone else at Montauk, she responds “our lives are what they are now.” Sustained by her realism and fatalism, she holds at arm’s length Hae Sung’s mystical fantasy of a past life and a future life, of In Yun. On a superficial tourists’ afternoon in Brooklyn, the two sit in front of a whirling merry go round, apropos. In Joni Mitchell’s lyric, “we’re captive on the carousel of time.”
And then there they are, Hae Sung and Arthur, and between them Nora, in that New York bar at 4 a.m. What did they say? What did Nora do?
Director: Celine Song
Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Leem Seung-min, Moon Seung-ah
Country: United States, South Korea
Language: English, Korean
Runtime: 105 minutes
Other Awards: 4 wins and 11 nominations to date