Past Lives possesses echoes of Lost in Translations, although a few elements play in reverse. Instead of two Americans meeting against a Tokyo backdrop, Past Lives centers on two South Korean natives reuniting in New York. However, not since Lost in Translation has a relationship reflected such an unspoken sense of longing. As beautifully crafted as director Celine Song’s dialogue is, the film’s true power resides in the quiet glances between our leads. In a summer of edge-of-your-seat action sequences, the season’s most suspenseful moment is a practically silent exchange towards the conclusion of Past Lives. The stakes might not seem high, but it encompasses the intensity of a bomb-defusing scene as we contemplate where these characters will go from here.
The film opens with three characters, Nora (Greta Lee), Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), and Arthur (John Magaro), sitting at the bar. Two onlookers contemplate the relationship between these three. It’s revealed that Hae Sung and Nora were childhood sweethearts, but the latter moved across the world before a serious relationship could develop. The two reconnect as adults over video phone, although they remain on opposite tracks. Nora eventually meets Arthur, getting hitched before settling down in New York. While the marriage is partially motivated by Nora’s need for a green card, their relationship is based on love and understanding. Arthur is so understanding that he doesn’t put his foot down when Hae Sung comes for a visit.
In a more conventional romantic drama, Arthur would be a one-note villain driving a wedge between Nora from her true love. Arthur even says this while lying in bed with Nora, but Past Lives thankfully never gets too meta. Although Nora’s relationship with Hae Sung is at the film’s heart, Arthur isn’t reduced to being “the other guy.” Celine Song’s screenplay respects all three parties involved, which isn’t surprising even her close connection to the material. Past Lives is a semi-autobiographical piece with Song drawing inspiration from her immigration to America, her marriage, and her roads not taken.
Arthur knows that Nora (probably) isn’t going to leave him for Hae Sung. Yet, the three can’t shake the feeling that Nora and Hae Sung may be kindred spirits. Even if the two are soulmates, that doesn’t mean they’re destined for each other. Had Nora’s family never left South Korea, she might be happily married to Hae Sung. It’s also possible that Nora’s relationship with Hae Sung would’ve fizzled out over time. Nobody will ever know for sure, which is where the story’s heartbreak resides. Both want so desperately to find out what could’ve been. If either were to even peak behind the curtain, though, there would be no going back.
With her first feature, Song has made one of modern cinema’s honest pictures about relationships. Past Lives also marks a breakthrough for Greta Lee, who has been popping up in film, television, and stage for over a decade. This is a Best Actress-caliber turn as a woman torn between her past and future. Lee says so much with the subtlest gestures, which makes it all the more effective when Nora unleashes all of her emotions during that gut-wrenching climax. Above all else, Lee’s performance and Song’s story capture how life gets in the way. Sometimes it’s a blessing in disguise. Other times, it’s a gatekeeper to happiness. In any case, we’ll always wonder.