Universality in specificity seems to be trending. Mass production of individual experience is what the market says it desires. Pull quotes and think pieces tread on similar notes of contentment with representation, identity or thought, while never yearning for anything beyond. Celine Song’s Past Lives is the beyond. In her debut film, Song has written and realized an odyssey of love so vast in its scope that one feels entranced by its frame while never losing sight of her directorial voice.
The film tells the story of Greta Lee’s Nora and Teo Yoo’s Hae Sung, two childhood friends teetering on sweethearts who grew up in South Korea until Nora was relocated to America with her family. The narrative follows them from childhood separation to digital college reconnection to charged adulthood reunion, each chapter of their lives serving as one of the film’s parts. They are bound together in this triptych by unspoken truths and the Korean notion of In-Yun, itself an unspoken truth. In-Yun is described as the sort of binding destiny between us; there are layers of it built over thousands of past lives that bring us to the moments with one other. Caught up between the unexpressed and pined-after is that notion, a concept so lofty it dares to topple the film.
Song’s sweeping story is different from the simplistic marriage of personal and universal that the loosely defined market wants, because it is a film that swerves beyond the brackets that many would wish to hold it between. Many more twee and ironic stories like this have come before and will come after, but I’d confidently say that very few will contain as much wisdom or personality as Song’s film, an astonishing unraveling of the ties between us.
Tenderness drives the heart of this film so delicately that one doesn’t recognize that they’re being driven. Every step of the film feels like a grace note and the unfolding of this tapestry pays off like magic in Song’s hands. The main cast – the aforementioned two and John Magaro – are committed to the quiet and contemplative reality of these characters that buoy the narrative. Their understated gestures and glances are exactly what give an audience comfort while slyly misdirecting them. As a guide, one could do worse than Song, too. With credentials in the theater world as a playwright, it’s no wonder that this is a very dialogue-rich movie, though it thankfully lacks any verbosity.
Though the dynamics in the movie are turbulent and loaded, there’s a calm to it all, the vastness and the uncertainties filled by Song’s words and deft hand, that puts an audience exactly where they need to be. This comfort through confidence is what drives the first two chapters of the film, displaying a timid excitability that’s only subdued by the duo’s individual ambitions. What goes unspoken between the two over Skype, a concept that feels anti-cinematic, is electrifying because of how well-played it is and how Song frames them and emphasizes the devastation of their distance. However, the third act is truly where everybody shines. These minutes are the sudden release you don’t see coming. As a prestige turn, it’s magnificent to watch Song evolve ordinary moments into extraordinary emotional peaks and valleys.
Moments that define films come few and far between, often feeling forced by a director or invisible executive hand, so this movie’s defining moment comes as even more of a shock. In-Yun is a steady throughline of the film, but it often feels like an aside, brushed off on Magaro’s Arthur as a pickup line. However, the idea slowly reveals itself as part of the soul of the film and imbues this definitive moment with the weight of a thousand past lives. It’s indescribable but easily known upon seeing it. It’s something hard to top this year.
So many films come and go, just as we do, and to meet a film that connects on as deep a level as Past Lives feels just as important and overwhelming as an unexpected connection with those who have been relegated to routine figures. One can’t help but feel that this connection stems from “meeting” Celine Song’s cinema. With an auspicious debut that stuns as often as it provokes with intent, it’s safe to say that Song’s new cinematic voice is as generous a gift to an audience as one will find all summer.