The concept of finding soulmates has been a popular topic in movies over time, especially in romantic comedies and dramas. In her first film as a director, Celine Song adds her own perspective to this theme by incorporating her personal experiences with the Asian-American community. “Past Lives” initially debuted at Sundance, then screened at Berlin, and is now being shown at Busan.
Busan International Film Festival featured a screening of Past Lives.
The tale starts in the year 2000, introducing two close childhood friends, Na-young and Hae Sung. Due to Na-young’s family moving from South Korea to Canada, the two are separated. Twelve years later, Hae Sung has finished his military service and Na-young has relocated to New York City, now going by the name Nora. One day, while scrolling through Facebook, Nora discovers that Hae Sung had left a comment searching for Na Young, unaware of her name change. They reconnect through video calls but are unable to meet in person as Nora is attending a writer’s retreat and Hae Sung is moving to China for a language exchange. At the retreat, Nora meets and falls in love with Arthur Zaturansky. Similarly, Hae Sung also begins dating a woman. After another 12 years, the two finally reunite in New York.
Celine Song skillfully directs a poignant and gradual love story that features a well-executed flashback and a memorable ending. The film primarily explores the idea of soulmates and their impact on individuals, specifically in the Korean culture where it is closely tied to beliefs of reincarnation.
Also, take a look at this interview.
Rather than taking the typical approach of similar movies, Song deviates by shifting the focus away from the childhood romance and delving into the characters’ lives as individuals. Nora’s character plays a larger role in this analysis, leading up to the reunion of the two protagonists and adding to the tension of their eventual fate as Koreans.
However, it is noteworthy that Song’s focus is not solely on the overall narrative, but rather on individual scenes. These scenes serve as the foundation for her storytelling. For instance, the initial split between the two paths, one straight and one upward, can be seen as a metaphor for their entire journey in life, even extending into their later years. Additionally, the scenes at the bar, both in the beginning and end of the film, are significant as they offer insight into the characters and set the tone for the viewer. This is exemplified in the discussion of the married couple in bed, which Song uses to shape the audience’s first impression. Lastly, the ending is particularly impactful as it reveals crucial details about the plot. These elements make this movie a must-watch.
There are moments in the film where the pacing is slow, especially before the meeting, which stretches the runtime to 105 minutes. This could be due to the aforementioned reasons. The editing by Keith Fraase could have been tighter to improve the overall pace of the movie. However, his work is skillful, with smooth and well-placed flashbacks and transitions in the narrative.
Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography is skillful, realistically capturing the diverse settings with artistic flair. Her use of close-up shots is effective for the most part. Additionally, her portrayal of Greta Lee, the standout star of the film, enhances her performance and intensifies its impact. Speaking of Greta Lee, she impresses throughout the movie, maintaining a charming sense of balance even in the most challenging scenes, and reaching her peak in the finale. John Magaro, playing her husband, complements her performance nicely, while Teo Yoo, as Hae-sung, adds a final touch through his interactions with both characters.
I do not believe “Past Lives” can be considered a masterpiece, like some critics have claimed. However, it is a well-made film with strong performances and directing that demonstrates Celine Song’s ability to handle emotions, including sentimentality, in a way that could potentially influence the direction of romantic movies in the future.