Nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Motion Picture and Best Original Screenplay) and currently sitting at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, Celine Song’s first film “Past Lives” (A24) is the kind of debut that only comes along occasionally. There are numerous reasons why “Past Lives” has connected with audiences, but it is certain to find a following among queer viewers because the story could just as easily be told from a same-gender perspective.
Song’s very personal screenplay begins with people in a bar speculating about what the story is behind the woman and two men sitting together at the bar across from them at 4 a.m. We are then transported back 24 years (so specific!) to South Korea, where competitive, school-aged Na Young (Seung-ah Moon) and male classmate Hae Sun (Seung-Min Yim) are walking home from school. She’s upset because he got better marks than she did.
At home, Na Young and her kid sister tell their parents that they’ve decided on the English names they plan to use when the family relocates to Toronto. Na Young settles on Nora. When asked by her mother if there’s a boy she likes at school, she says Hae Sun. The girl’s and boy’s mothers arrange a chaperoned date for the two in a sculpture park. Shortly thereafter, they say goodbye for the last time.
Soon, Nora and her family are on a plane from Korea to Canada to begin life anew. The one glimpse we get of Nora at her new school, standing alone on the playground at recess, is enough to suggest that her adjustment won’t be easy.
Twelve years later, the grown-up Hae Sun (the very hot Teo Yoo) is in the Korean military while Nora (Greta Lee) is in school in New York studying to become a playwright. While on the phone with her mother, Nora discovers that Hae Sun left a message for her on her filmmaker father’s Facebook page. Nora replies.
This sets something powerful in motion. Hae Sun, who still lives at home with his parents while he’s in school studying engineering, and Nora begin a Skype relationship full of longing glances, hopeful pauses and silences, and a potential for romance as they become reacquainted. Soon, they realize that it may be a long time before either of them is able to visit the other in their respective countries. Because of this, or perhaps something else, Nora wants to take a break from their communication, even though it’s taken them 12 years to find each other. Hae Sun reluctantly agrees.
While in Montauk at an artists’ colony, Nora meets writer Arthur (John Magaro of “First Cow” fame), and they begin a relationship. Advancing another 12 years, Nora and Arthur are married. Nora is an established playwright, and we see her auditioning actors for one of her plays. Arthur is a writer, and we watch Nora arrive at one of his book signings.
And then Hae Sun decides to come to New York for a vacation, as well as to see Nora. It is in these scenes, bursting with longing and sexual tension, as well as the importance of honoring commitment, that “Past Lives” takes viewers to new and unexpected places.
The “past lives” of the title not only refers to the lives the lead characters have lived thus far, but also to the Korean concept of In-Yun which involves reincarnation and interconnection. It’s a fitting metaphor for what takes place on-screen in this meaningful and heartbreaking debut from Song.