“The one that got away” can be both escapist fantasy, and very real in how formative that fantasy can be. Where so many stories, and particularly films, indulge the escapist fantasy, Past Lives is instead interested in considering how we can acknowledge the weight of the fantasy within the real lives with which we move on.
We begin at the end, as childhood sweethearts Na Young / Nora (Greta Lee) and Jung Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) reconnect as adults – alongside Nora’s husband, Arthur (John Magaro), before we take a round trip through their lifelong journey toward this point. Through sensitive performances, captured in Shabier Kirchner‘s gorgeous cinematography, we learn where these three are now, and how they honestly feel about it.
It’s wild that this is the debut feature for writer-director Celine Song, who seems to be as interested in quiet vulnerability as she is confident that it is interesting for others to watch – and we’re all richer for it.
Past Lives never devolves into melodrama, but instead gives its characters time and space to gently express vulnerability with sincere, and in some moments enviable, emotional maturity.
In the current cinematic landscape, Past Lives might be considered the opposite of a multiverse movie: instead of visualising paths not taken, it sits with the ghosts of those paths in the here and now, rich with nuance and gentle ache for other people and the possibilities they represent. I’m inclined to agree with Slate‘s Dan Kois, who regards the film as a gift of kindness, both to its characters and to its audience. Ultimately, Past Lives is a patiently beautiful sonnet about simple, unadorned longing in circumstances which are no more and no less complicated than just life.
“You’re just dealing with character, story, dialogue, blocking – the most fundamental parts of dramatic storytelling.” Celine Song explains to Kermode & Mayo how her ten years as a playwright informed her remarkably confident and evidently gifted debut as a film-maker, comparing and contrasting the two media as Buddhism to Christianity (oh, and the mechanics of storytelling on Mars):
As deeply as I adore Russian Doll, it does not begin to hint at what Greta Lee can do and does in Past Lives. She and her male co-stars were not allowed to touch during rehearsals, or even meet during zoom meetings, in order to create real-life first-time encounters that could be captured on film (via StudioCanal):