In The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost makes poetry a simple choice. Most of us know the end, but halfway through, fantasize about returning one day to that metaphorical fork in order to experience the other path: “However, not knowing how to lead the road to the road, I doubted whether I should go back.” In the illusory study of untapped possibilities, it isspirits of the pastPlaywright Celine Song She makes poetry for a similar situation, only this time, it’s a series of choices from her personal life—some made by herself, others decided for her by her parents—that set our minds to wonder what it could have been.
Born in South Korea, Song draws on its history and culture to craft this truly special feature for the first time, a treasure trove of autobiography that’s at once haunting and untouchably universal. Her script—often underrated, bursting with words only on demand—introduces the concept of “In-Yun” to Western viewers, defining it as the universe’s way of reuniting souls that shared a connection in previous lives. A beautiful idea, rendered so delicately, this low-key A24 show could very well be the soulful response to last year’s ‘everything everywhere at once’. Where Daniels’ film takes the approach of a bewildering multiverse, “Past Lives” is simple, slow, and straightforward. Song’s personalities are free to speculate, but there is no turning back. Or is there?
“Past Lives” takes place across three distinct periods, the way “Moonlight” (another A24 film) builds on memories minted and bonds forged in childhood. In the first part, 12-year-old Na Young (Sung Ah Moon) moves from South Korea to Canada, ditching her first crush in the process. She has already decided that she wants to be a writer when she grows up. However, what could she know about what her life might hold at that age? And what do you understand about what you leave behind?
We don’t quite get our bearings when the movie is over a dozen years old. The boy Hae Sung has grown up. Now played by Tyu-yu, he looks handsome if unhappy with being in military uniform, and doing his mandatory military service in Korea. Na Young, who now goes by Nora (Greta Lee), emigrated again, this time to New York City, where her studies put her on the path to becoming a playwright. By chance – or in yun? – I noticed that Hye Sung posted on her father’s Facebook page. Nora no longer recognizes the girl she was, but remembers Hae-sung fondly and responds to his message, catching a series of video calls.
And then, as suddenly as those conversations began, I cut them off. Another twelve years pass, and now Nora (still Lee) is married to fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro), whom she met at an artists’ retreat. Hae-sung disappeared from her life long ago when she learned that he was planning to visit New York for a week. As if by some inescapable gravitational pull, Past Lives seems to have been moving towards this reunion from the start – and no wonder: the opening shows Nora sitting between Arthur and Hye-sung at a bar.
It is this tension that underlies the entire film, finally expressed in a conversation that touches us as much as the walking-and-talk scenes in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise do. Ironically, “Past Lives” could be this film’s inverse: It’s not about a spontaneous relationship between strangers, but the power of tapping into a pre-established intimacy with someone you’ve known for a lifetime, and it seems like it’s not over yet. Action. Few movies offer such revealing conversations between men and women.
The aforementioned bar scene is particularly great, in part because Song has already devoted enough attention to all three characters. Nobody gets angry. Nobody throws a jealous punch. Nora’s husband has been studying Korean (in one of his many memorable conversations, he makes it clear that she reverts to her mother tongue when she talks in her sleep, and he wants him to understand that hidden part of her). Hae Sung could manage a few words of English. But for the most part, the two men sit through Nora’s life, separated by the barrier of language and the woman they love. And here she is, caught in the middle, suspended between what is and what could be.
It may not have been the right decision to use the same actors, Lee and Yu, in the middle and later parts of Nora’s life. There is something beautiful but still unchanging about people in their early twenties, and the performers seem too mature to convey. And that’s where the music of Grizzly Bear by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rosen comes in handy: the score practically oozes with potential during scenes in which Nora and Hye-sung talk by video—a youthful voice, as opposed to a later one, when the strings talk about what they might’ve missed out on.
Given Song’s background as a playwright, you might be surprised how confident she was in silence – or in the absence of speech. With the help of DP Shabier Kirchner, she realizes the visual potential of cinema, often preferring to observe over listening, such that body language and surroundings (Seoul and New York play itself) give viewers room to process. When the characters speak, they express themselves beautifully, as in the fun meta-scene where Arthur suggests that Nora use what’s happening in her work, and then proceeds to analyze his role in the story.
For all the movies that have been made about love triangles, Song has made her film in a circle, defying so many clichés in her quietly destructive way. Perhaps it’s because this very personal project is about a feeling other than passion – one that develops over the years, and that allows one life to contain many loves.