‘Past Lives’ review: Celine Song’s poignant debut is a nuanced little wonder | Berlinale
Three devastatingly attractive people are sitting at a bar: who are they? Or more importantly, who are they to each other? This initial curiosity bordering on the urge to define prompts a disembodied narrator to wonder what configurations might they exist in: since the woman is perched in between two men, she must be with one of them. And the other: a friend? A brother? It seems like there aren’t too many options in a heteronormative triangle, but Past Lives subverts this initial impression in three parts, covering decades of plot through singular punctures in the fabric of ‘ordinary’ life.
For her film debut, writer-playwright Celine Song channels the sweeping powers of intimate histories through elegant storytelling, lingering emotions, and a spectacular trio of performances. Greta Lee plays Nora, a New York based dramatist who at age thirty has already immigrated twice: from Korea to Canada, from Canada to the United States. Nora is by all means the gravitational center of Past Lives not only because narratively she’s in almost every scene (with one notable exception), but also because of Lee’s captivating levity that conquers you, immediately. She’s candid and funny, but the undercurrents of her character are carefully bandaged nostalgia and a steadfast dedication to shared life and love.
Growing up, Nora was best friends with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo in the adult role) and we get to see just enough of their childhood moments to demand a continuation of their sweet proto-couple times twelve years later. The gap between their final goodbye in Korea and the Facebook private message asking to reconnect remains unfilled, but Song knows better than to explain away. She lets her protagonists show, not tell, even if they are fascinatingly articulate when it comes to their emotions, past and present. It’s truly a delight to share introspective moments manifested in dialogue that is not analytical, but alive; in gestures that are minor, but laden with past meaning. Through the lens of Shabier Kirchner—a great photographer of romance and urgency Small Axe and Only You—Past Lives unfolds in waves, one image flowing into the other with fluctuating emotional intensity. Tracking shots and shot-reverse shot structures here are not as crucial for relating the characters whose bonds already stretch beyond time and space; rather, they serve as pleasure-binding techniques, tracing the invisible thread of tensions and attraction.
Mentions of fate and fatedess float around, but the film does not promote a predestined straight path that strips you out of your agency. Instead, the central concept is the Korean “in-yun,” which relates to closeness shared in past lives, and its nature is much more liberating than the Western iterations of destiny. Now Nora is married to Arthur (a phenomenal John Magaro) and has shared a life with him for over a decade and yet, something happens when she gets to spend an evening, sat at a bar in between him and Hae Sung in the third place she’s called home. While Song denies us an easy answer as to what that “something” is, she firmly believes that it’s beyond articulation. That’s why the strongest suit of Past Lives—which is, by all means, an excellent debut—is how tactile the feelings are. With some economic interventions, such as Arthur’s meta-reflexion on him potentially being the third wheel in Nora and Hae Sung’s story of rekindled passion, the film washes over the viewer with love and just a speck of ambivalence.
It’s there that Song places the inconsolable loss every immigrant has to live with their whole life, that of the singular home. For some, that means also a singular language, for every bilingual person knows that there is, inexplicably, a slippage between those speaking to one and another. Past Lives is layered, nuanced, and whole at the same time and in its singularity maybe there is the hope to counter the necessarily fragmented human nature. In many ways, it’s not really about the past, but about the future and by virtue of this, the film belongs to a canon, if there was one, of salvation cinema.
This review is from the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival. A24 will release Past Lives in the U.S. on May 19, 2023.