Love stories like this deserve to be authentic, too.
“Past Lives” is an authentic look at how two childhood friends in Seoul, South Korea go their separate ways and reunite as young adults. To clarify, this isn’t some kind of a breakup, the girl Na Young immigrates with her family to America, while the boy Hae Sung stays in South Korea. They both pursue career opportunities, while Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) tries to reunite with her, until he realizes that the girl changed her name to Nora (Greta Lee).
The story takes place over the course of 24 years with Hae Sung’s story being in Seoul and Nora’s in New York. And towards the end, the two characters ask each other about if they could be lovers or enemies in past lives. It’s not the kind of love story in which these two live happily ever after. It’s the kind that contemplates their careers and their chemistry, and it never condescends.
During one of their reunions, he wishes for her to return to Seoul, while she wishes for him to visit her in New York. Their circumstances are not as easy as they sound.
Nora meets and marries a Jewish-American writer named Arthur (John Magaro). Earlier than normally, because of her green card. And he still values her friendship with Hae Sung, even if he can guess that she’ll fall back in love with him. But then again, they were friends when they were kids, so it’s a complicated guess.
“Past Lives” is a somber film from writer/director Celine Song (“The Wheel of Time”), who presents these characters with life and emotions. The girl wishes to make her journey to America worth it, while the boy has been through one break-up after another. One of the reasons being that since he is an only child, he wouldn’t be good enough to provide a good, steady life for his previous girlfriend.
Lee, whom I’ve only known through her voice roles in the “Spider-Verse” movies and the “Housebroken” animated series, has genuine magnetism, especially through the cultures presented here. And I never heard of Yoo (“Decision to Leave”) before, but he’s shown to represent his humanity, based on his tone and emotions. These two have chemistry in more ways than you expect. And Magaro does some truthful work being at the center of this, without being routine or typical. In fact, his scenes with Lee couldn’t be more poignant.
The film knows when to use the subtitles, when to speak in English, and know how to acknowledge these characters. This is the kind of film that has you really thinking about their directions in life, and what they could have been if they stuck together all these years. Maybe they could be lovers or enemies. Maybe they could tip toe into “When Harry Met Sally” territory. I can’t say for sure. You never know what life throws at you.
“Past Lives” is one of the best films of the year for all the reasons I’ve mentioned. It’s quiet and patient and beautifully filmed by Song. And it’s also refreshing that I’ve praised two films set in Seoul so far this year, with “Return to Seoul” and “Past Lives.” These two know the right words to say and the right emotions to express.
Now Playing in Select Theaters and Expanding on June 23