After seeing two of the summer’s most bombastic tentpole movies, “Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny” (which I reviewed last week) and “Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Part One” (which I’ll review next week), it was nice to see something much, much quieter.
“Past Lives” has no car chases, no gunfights, no superheroes. Rather, it’s the story of two people who grow up together, then separate, and reunite years later.
In Seoul, South Korea, we meet Na Young, a very smart twelve-year-old whose best friend, Hae Sung, is her academic rival and soul mate. But their companionship gets ripped apart when Na’s parents decide to move the family to Toronto. Having changed her name to Nora, she begins a new life before moving to New York City as an adult to be a playwright.
Now twenty-four, Nora hears from a friend that Hae Sung has been searching for her on Facebook. She connects with him over Skype, and the two fall back into comfortable conversation as if the dozen years haven’t passed. She’s clearly happy to spend time online with him, and it’s even clearer that he still pines for her. But the distance between them — in terms of both geography and maturity — makes her break off communication again. She goes on with her life, which includes attending a writers’ retreat where she meets and falls for a Jewish guy named Arthur.
Then “Past Lives” moves forward another dozen years and we find Nora and Arthur happily married, although he’s a little concerned that Hae Sung is flying to New York to look up his old crush. When they finally reunite in person, it’s clear that Hae Sung still has deep feelings for Nora, but she has moved on in every way while he remains stuck in the past. Even during long takes where the two do little more than stare into each other’s eyes, we can see the chasm between them that is invisible to him.
Recognizing that her movie is more about reaction than action, writer/director Celine Song doesn’t ping-pong between closeups of her two leads. She often keeps the camera on one of them while the other talks, just so we can see the impact of the words, or uses two-shots to give us a full view of body language.
As Nora, Greta Lee (“Russian Doll,” “The Morning Show”) makes every moment count, with an expressive facial gesture or a mere touch of her hand. Teo Yoo isn’t given as much to do, yet makes us fully understand the depth of yearning Hae Sung has carried around while wondering what could have been. John Magaro nicely straddles the thin line between Arthur’s love for his wife and mild jealousy.
The every-twelve-years structure of “Past Lives” reminded me of the every-nine-years storytelling of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” series. As satisfying as it was to see the relationship of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) develop, I’d happily sit through an update on Nora and Hae Sung in another dozen years.
I give “Past Lives” an 8.5 out of 10. Now playing in theaters.