The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - PAST LIVES | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - PAST LIVES

New to Netflix - PAST LIVES
A Korean emigrant reconnects with the childhood love she left behind.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Celine Song

Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Seung Ah Moon, Seung Min Yim

Past Lives poster

Your first crush is a lot like your first pet; you learn a lot about life when they go away. Burying a dog, cat, budgie or goldfish in the backyard is often a child's first experience of death, and serves as a means of preparing them for a lifetime of saying goodbye. First crushes tend to fade out as both young parties realise there's nothing substantial to their relationship beyond puppy love. But what if your first crush was cruelly taken from you long before you made such a realisation?

That's the question posed by writer/director Celine Song's debut, Past Lives. As 12-year-olds in Seoul, Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) become each other's first crush. What Hae Sung doesn't know is that Na Young is set to leave with her family for a new life in Toronto. In a gesture that is either willfully ignorant or cruel, Na Young's mother arranges for the two kids to go on a "date" together. Young love blossoms until Sae Hung learns of Na Young's imminent departure. Song closes out this chapter with a shot that might be mistaken for split screen, as the two kids take divergent paths.

Past Lives review

12 years later we find Na Young, now going under the name Nora (now played by Greta Lee), living in New York and chasing her dream of becoming a playwright. Feeling nostalgic, she looks up old school friends on social media and discovers Hae Sung (now played by Leto's Teo Yoo) has been trying to find her. The two reconnect and spend a lot of time over Skype. Promises are made to visit each other's cities, but reality gets in the way and the pragmatic Nora decides it's best to call off their fledgling relationship.

Another dozen years pass and Nora is now a successful playwright fully settled into the bohemian New York lifestyle, sharing an apartment in Greenwich Village with Arthur (John Magaro), the bearded Jewish writer she married. When Hae Sung arrives in New York for a visit, Nora agrees to meet her old friend.

Past Lives review

You may be primed for a Before Sunrise style romance, but both Nora and the film itself are far more rational in their approach to such matters. Opening with an unseen commentator musing over the relationship between Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur as they drink in a bar, the movie goes on to become something of a meta dissection of romantic storytelling. Much of this comes through Nora and Arthur being storytellers themselves, and thus both wary of becoming the clichés of the woman swept off her feet by a reunion with her first love and the jealous husband. Displaying the sort of insecurities only a writer could possess, Arthur grills his wife regarding the stability of their marriage. "I'm where I'm meant to be," is Nora's ambiguous answer.

We learn that Nora initially married Arthur in order to obtain a greencard. Fortunately the relationship developed into something lasting, but it's a telling sign of Nora's pragmatism. Nora confesses that Hae Sung's conservative Korean ways make her uncomfortable; it's ironic then that she left a country where marriages often begin with a connection based on pragmatism, only to enter a marriage of convenience herself. Hae Sung's presence both disturbs and excites Nora. As she puts its, in his presence she feels "very non-Korean, but also more Korean than I've ever felt before."

Past Lives review

Song explores the divergences between immigrants and natives through Hae Sung's misguided hope that Nora will some day return to Korea and Arthur's fear that she might connect with Hae Sung in a way she never could with an American man. But both men have misjudged Nora, who is in exactly the place she wants to be, physically if perhaps not emotionally. Nora is "someone who leaves," as Hae Sung puts it with a resigned acceptance. In this manner Past Lives is something of an Asian-American cousin of the recent Irish drama Lakelands, in which a homely young man is similarly forced to reckon with his incompatibility with the sophisticated woman he loves.

With delicious ambiguity, Song occasionally teases a more traditional romance lurking under her film's mature surface. When at a New York bar, Nora and Hae Sung isolate themselves from Arthur by speaking Korean (Song cleverly frames this in an awkward manner that suggests Arthur has been torn from a more immaculately mounted set-up), we suspect this might be the moment of raw confession, but instead the two use the opportunity to have a grown-up conversation about why they don't belong together. Hae Sung's previously sad eyes seem to curl with contentment for the first time as Nora's pragmatism opens the cage he's trapped himself in for close to a quarter of a century. And yet the movie's closing moments leave us wondering if they've really been honest with each other, or themselves. We know this isn't the sort of romantic drama that will climax in a late dash to the airport, but its brilliance lies in how it makes us wish for such a comforting cliché.

Past Lives
 is on Netflix UK/ROI now.

2023 movie reviews