Two 12-year-olds with crushes on each other are separated when the girl’s family emigrates from South Korea to Canada. 24 years later, the boy, now an adult, travels to America to see her again.
Past Lives is the debut feature from Korean-Canadian playwright Celine Song. In it, she draws on our experiences of career, romance, and the balancing act between a woman’s past in Korea, and present in America. The themes really apply to anyone that has called two different countries home.
The movie begins with two 12-year-olds in South Korea, a girl and a boy, Na Young and Hae Sung, best friends who like to compete for higher marks in class. As time goes on, they develop a crush on one other. Na Young even tells her mother that she will eventually marry Hae Sung. But her father’s plans change all that—he has an opportunity which causes him to move his family to Canada for a better life.
Cut to 12 years later. A grown up Young, who has renamed herself Nora, is an aspiring playwright living in New York City, and played by Greta Lee. She seems thoroughly American now, even having occasional trouble remembering how to speak Korean. One day, out of curiosity she searches for her childhood friend Sung on the internet, and finds out that he’s a graduate student in Seoul. She contacts him and arranges for a Skype call, and that’s how they see each other once again. A sense of ease and familiarity returns quickly, and even across years of separation it’s clear that there’s an attraction. But Sung, played by Teo Yoo, has to stay in Seoul for his degree, and Nora won’t give up her playwright ambitions to return to Korea, so eventually their Skype calls get less frequent, and then they lose touch.
Now we move forward again, another 12 years. Sung, now a successful engineer, can’t get Nora out of his mind. He contacts her, lets her know he’s coming to visit, and flies to New York. A lot has changed in 12 years. Nora is married to an American writer named Arthur, played by John Magaro. A flashback shows us how they met at a writer’s retreat, and we see their comfortable supportive relationship.
So, if Celine Song were trying to write a romantic melodrama, the visit would cause a crisis in Nora’s marriage. Nope—Sung has just come to see his friend, and Nora and Arthur welcome him, and it’s all treated as it would be in real life, in other words, normal. Well, there are subtle tensions, and the two leads are excellent at evoking the tender feelings that are still there.
The beauty of Past Lives is in the touching interactions between these two people, and the recognition of how they’ve changed from the time they were children. The director is at home with a gentle editing style, following these good characters as they wander around the East Village and the Brooklyn waterfront, having conversations with a genuine hesitancy, shyness, and sincerity.
In the course of the film, Sung brings up in conversation a traditional Korean idea called In-Yun, meaning that people have connections with each other in past lives that result in whatever affinity we’re experiencing now. This becomes a thread that guides our emotional journey in the film. Past Lives celebrates the wistful, sad, joyous relationship we have with the memory of our younger selves.