Celine Song’s “Past Lives” is a film that embodies lyrics found in Al Stewart’s song “Time Passages”; “A girl comes towards you, You once used to know
You reach out your hand, But you’re all alone, in these time passages
I know you’re in there, you’re just out of sight.”
Strong has created a profound piece about the bonds formed in youth that are always with us but hold different meaning as we change with the passing of time.
The film begins in the year 2000 in South Korea where we meet 12-year-old Na Young (Seung-ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung-min Yim). They have a strong bond that subtly reveals itself to be a blossoming first love. We all remember our first childhood attraction that felt like something real. Theirs is a rooted friendship that is sprouting a tender bond of love the two will carry with them as life goes on.
These children have the kind of organic relationship that only our youth can forge, and the director gives their scenes a natural, unforced flow. The young actors move effortlessly through these early moments. We are so enraptured by the beauty of their friendship, our hearts hurt when Na Young’s parents make the decision to immigrate to Canada.
In a park, the two play together for one last time, smiling and laughing and just being alive and existing as one soul. The sting of adult life seems so far away. The moment holds a profound tenderness. Walking home from school, they have their final moment together, Hae Sung calls out to his friend. The young souls stare quietly at one another, their hearts making a deeper connection than they can understand.
With a simple utterance of “Bye”, they are off on their separate life journeys, each fueled by the hope that they will never lose what they have.
It is as Lao Tzu wrote, “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield.”
Song’s feature film debut is a deeply felt and philosophically alive picture that understands human emotions. The filmmaker demonstrates her skill for storytelling and crafts her striking debut with grace a patient director’s eye. The South Korean-born filmmaker taps into her own past and embraces her culture, creating something poetic and alive. There are so many things happening within the minds and hearts of its main characters, each achingly real emotion becoming universal for the audience.
Time moves on and the two characters are now grown. Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) is a handsome man in the middle of his mandatory military service in Korea. Na Young now calls herself Nora (Greta Lee) and has moved to New York City, where she works at becoming a playwright.
Nora notices that Hae Sung has posted on her father’s Facebook page. Suddenly flooded with fond memories long buried, she reaches out. The strength of their youthful bond blooms again and in a series of scenes where the two talk about their now very different worlds, the film solidifies its Buddhist-like flow of lives in motion.
What follows isn’t a mere sentimentalization of a youthful crush. Hae Sung and Nora/Na Young share something real. It is a bond that takes new shape, caught up in the unavoidable winds of change.
As a few more years pass, Nora is now a married woman and explains to her American husband Arthur (John Magaro) the Korean concept of fate, “In-Yun”, which is the ties between two people over the course of their lives that become a path of predestined fates and forever connected destinies. The journeys of Nora and Hae Sung are representative of this concept, with Arthur becoming another petal on the flower of their connection.
Aided by the fluid yet zen-like serenity of Shabier Kirchner’s camera, Celine Song finds a delicate visual tone that achieves an elegant poetry. The camera moves within its surroundings, breathing with the characters until people, time, and place become one. As our lives are in a constant state of flux, so are the images within “Past Lives”. The audience is carried along by the ethereal spirit that runs through Song’s film.
Composers Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear have crafted a beautifully atmospheric score. Their blend of soulful piano, guitar, and strings, complete with dashes of synth, is an effective combination of Ryuchi Sakamoto and Isao Tomita. The music is a whisper that unconsciously moves us, inhaling and exhaling as part of the film’s characters.
Celine Song knows that a look or silent moment can be stronger than words. Through long takes, the director allows the conversations to breathe, letting her actors cultivate the emotions of the moment and assuring space for the natural silences.
Greta Lee and Teo Yoo make us believe in the strength of their connection. The two actors are incredibly natural, expertly using the stillness gifted to them by their director.
This is the kind of actor/filmmaker collaboration that finds an all-to-rare cinematic symmetry. The performances from Lee and Yoo are absolutely striking; their work becoming something transcendental. One can only hope the Academy will remember the two actors when Oscar season arrives.
There is so much for the heart and soul to embrace in “Past Lives”, but it is in the screenplay’s lasting message where Celine Song finds its truth.
Life and love ebb and flow. Embrace change but keep the past in your heart. To swim in our memories is the greatest gift.
Written & Directed by Celine Song
Starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro
PG-13, 105 Minutes, A24/Killer Films/2 AM