“If you leave something behind, you gain something too.”Nora’s Mom
Opening with three individuals being observed from across a bar, Past Lives then flashes back by several decades, ultimately circling back to that same bar scene now imbued with the years of yearning and intimacy refined through the course of the film. Writer-director Celine Song’s debut explores the relationship between two Korean childhood friends who meet again decades later, its gentleness belying the aching longing it portrays with a haunting tone reminiscent of In The Mood For Love and more recently Decision to Leave. Unrequited love is a common theme for cinema but rare is the greater agony of requited love left unrealised. Song questions whether it is intrusive to connect with someone who is seeking to build their own life, resulting in the stagnating pain of being attached to someone at a distance. She uses the Korean concept of “in-yun” — that even the briefest interaction between people is part of a wider tapestry of fate connecting them across past lives — as both a metaphor and a shared language through which to address a nebulous relationship. Both Greta Lee and Teo Yoo deliver nuanced, moving performances, where much is conveyed through a glance or a gaze. The deliberately simple camerawork follows the actors, focusing on the subtleties of their performances like the importance of a brief but meaningful touch. Both Nora and Hae Sung reassure her husband — insecure, but determined to be supportive — that Hae Sung’s visit is not intended to disrupt their marriage, though the audience may not believe this as much as the characters. When 12-year-old Nora leaves Korea at her parents’ decision there is no melodramatic outburst, only pining and discontent — reconnecting with Hae Sung then represents not only the loss of a relationship but the loss of an entire culture, an alternate life. There are hints of Lost in Translation to its ending, including the closing shot, and the relationship it captures may likewise feel too ephemeral for some viewers; however, for those who have experienced this form of nascent love interrupted by life, Past Lives is likely to burrow deep within.