With Past Lives, director Celine Song has a fine story on her hands — and she knows it. A decade after immigrating with her family from South Korea to Canada, Nora (Greta Lee) finds herself in New York, reconnecting over Skype with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), a childhood friend she once said she’d marry. But when she feels it difficult to sustain the go-nowhere relationship while keeping to her ambitions of making it as a playwright, she breaks things off. Another decade passes, and Nora has now been married to a fellow writer, Arthur (John Magaro), for seven years, when Hae Sung decides to travel to New York to see her. They meet a few times without Arthur, and then a final time with him. Before this last encounter, Nora and Arthur lay in bed discussing the situation, and the latter, while reflecting on his role in all this, remarks what we know only too well: that this would, indeed, make for a great story.
Unfortunately, a solid story hook is about all Past Lives amounts to, lacking as it does any robust cinematic interest. To be sure, the film has any number of competently, even pleasingly framed shots. Unlike Hong Sang-soo’s in water, say, every shot in Past Lives is properly in focus. Occasionally, the film even includes sequences that convey narrative information without the use of dialogue (!), which some will put forward as evidence that Song, a playwright, truly understands the medium she is working in. No, the issue is not that Past Lives fails at any effect it strives for, but rather that it doesn’t strive for any effects worth having. This is all the more irksome as the basic premise opens a bevy of compelling possibilities. Not being able to speak Korean, Arthur expresses his fear of having no access to an entire aspect of Nora’s person. But one might consider a film that did not just bluntly state this in dialogue, but, in the manner of Career Girls (1997), for example, actually showed how this years-later reunion brings forth a side of Nora’s behavior that Arthur had never seen, and that she herself may have forgotten.
Nora’s sense of cultural dislocation, meanwhile, is repeatedly underlined as a crucial aspect of her experience — but the most we see of this is a testy encounter at border control. It would be unfair to say that Past Lives pales in comparison to similarly themed films like Ann Hui’s Song of the Exile (1990) or even Davy Chou’s recent Return to Seoul (2022). But those provide less an example of what this film should have done than suggest how little Song tries to do, how little risk there is here. In this respect, Past Live most resembles John Crowley’s anemic 2015 drama Brooklyn; it does little more than solicit sympathy for nice people, asking us to share in their hopes and dreams, and to feel sad with them.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.