Sometimes a film comes along that has all the reviewers raving. Since Past Lives premiered at Sundance at the beginning of the year, it’s been topping critics’ polls at festivals such as Berlin, and now it’s finally hitting the UK. I’m happy to say that it does not disappoint — it may be a slow-burner with no easy answers, but that’s one of its many strengths.
The story of a woman who reconnects with her childhood sweetheart, it stars an excellent Greta Lee as Nora, who immigrated from South Korea as a child. Before she left, she had a ‘date’ with Hae Sung, and the two became firm friends. As young people, they reconnect on Skype, but the distance forces them apart.
Years later, Greta is living in New York with her amiable American husband, Arthur ( John Magaro). When Hae Sung (Tao Yoo) comes to America to see her, the pair clearly still have a connection, which throws all three of them into a polite kind of quandary. That’s another of this film’s strengths: everyone is a decent person who’s trying to do the right thing, but — as in life — it’s not always clear what that is, even if you’re asking what’s right for you.
Nora enjoys her relatively sophisticated urban life with fellow writer Arthur, with whom she has plenty in common — but she feels the lure of the past when she sees Hae Sung, who has a wildly different life and outlook, but who represents a culture and a love she left behind.
The idea of the title is that people who make a connection, however slight, were together in a past life, and that thread is woven throughout the film. Is there an alternate universe in which Greta is happy with Hae Sung? Would that be better? There’s a telling scene when Arthur asks Greta if she’s truly happy, living with him in their small apartment. It’s the kind of question that will resonate with many, as it focuses on life choices the direction we choose. There’s no bad guy in this scenario — it simply feels incredibly real.
It’s no surprise to learn that debut director Celine Song is herself an immigrant from South Korea, who was inspired to write this by her own experiences. She’s aided by vivid cinematography and universally strong performances: both Lee and Yoo evolve convincingly over the years.
Meanwhile, John Magaro, who was tremendous in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, puts in a supporting turn that’s full of empathy and quiet charm. Past Lives has all the hallmarks of an arthouse hit, and it could go all the way to the Oscars — in one life, anyway.