From South Korea to the east coast of the United States, no matter where really, heartbreak or heartache feels good in a place like this because we come to the movies for magic. Tapping into that specific sensibility is Past Lives, a romantic drama directed and written by Celine Song as her feature debut in both of those roles.
Playing a key role in the film, however, is Greta Lee who stars as Nora (Na Young being her original Korean name) who's at first a 24-year-old aspiring writer that moved from South Korea to Canada 12 years ago with her family. Nora reconnects virtually with her childhood friend and sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) with whom she lost contact after the move. With their feelings developing but the distance and ambitions in the way, they decide to stop talking again. Another 12 years later, Hae Sung finally travels to New York City where Nora lives and the two of them meet again in person, Nora now being married to and living with fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro) while Hae Sung's relationship with his girlfriend has hit a roadblock.
There are marginally worrying wobbles during the first 10 minutes of the film, possibly showing an effect of rewrites or Song's doubts about where to start her characters' journeys, as awkward lines of dialogue and exposition are used to evoke first love or reasons for a fresh start. Thankfully that's less evident when we get to Nora as an adult and she finds a small hidden part of herself again with Hae Sung. Following their video calls that are their way of communicating, Song begins to find more and more gems in these interactions, whether that is with sincere, thoughtful dialogue that is the complete opposite of the beginning, or with a flawless sense of pace that gets your heart beating and accelerating in the same rhythm as the characters. Editor Keith Fraase's work emphasises that rush and the editing keeps doing that afterwards too, notably finding some effective, devastating cuts between perspectives and times near the end of the movie.
It is that feeling of wistfulness that both carries the storytelling and stays with you during and after. Very rarely do you see a filmmaker and their team hitting that kind of frequency—particularly in one's first feature which is remarkable—and that alone would be worth celebrating. Then you can add the layered and rich characters that Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur are. There's not even a hint of villainous tendencies, instead there are complex and honest conversations about the film's themes; love, respect, boundaries and compassion. But wait, then you can also add the tremendous performers refining this text. Lee's emotive eyes, Yoo's evolving body language and Magaro's control of the tone are just some of the highlights that turn those conversations into magical moments. The wait for the cab, Arthur and Hae Sung's first encounter as well as Nora and Arthur talking in bed are rather memorable and profound.
Ultimately, those moments, a few quietly lovely musical cues from Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen, expressed regrets, shared looks and observations help Song to smooth out the wobbles and convey an emotional contemplation of affection in its many forms. Even if 12, 24 or 36 years pass, you can be pretty sure that Past Lives' effect on you will remain.
Smileys: Screenplay, acting, dialogue, editing, characterisation
Frowneys: Nothing too disappointing
Be brave and go look for your Seoul-mate.