Past Lives (A24, PG-13)

Celine Song’s Past Lives is why I go to the movies. That indescribable feeling Nicole Kidman talks about in those AMC intros? That’s the hope that you’re about to see a movie as honest and enchanting as Past Lives.

Playwright and first-time film director Song wrote her script from the real-life experience of her long-lost childhood sweetheart from South Korea visiting her as an adult in New York City. The film opens from someone else’s perspective, seeing Nora (Greta Lee), Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), and Arthur (John Magaro), Nora’s husband, sitting at a bar together. Nora is the intermediary as Hae Sung’s English and Arthur’s Korean are spotty at best. The trio’s dynamic might seem strained from afar as Arthur does look awkward at times sitting there, but thankfully Past Lives doesn’t rest on any notes of jealousy or misguided romantic gesture. Nobody in this film acts like a cliché. Past Lives is blessedly human.

What follows after the cold open is a sort of montage nearly as heart-wrenching as the first act of Pixar’s Up. Don’t worry, nobody passes away, but as Nora emigrates and Hae Sung stays behind, their scenes of loneliness — even when they later reconnect online as college kids — are directed so delicately and with such depth of feeling that when Nora decides to end their emotional fling in their twenties, it perfectly sets up the idea of physical and cultural distance as one of the film’s main conflicts.

The avoidance of cliché is paramount here. Rather than Nora ever explicitly questioning her marriage or her life choices, Past Lives gently explores the immigrant experience and the passing of time through the prism of this situation. One of the best scenes of the film is Nora and Arthur pillow-talking around the issues Hae Sung’s arrival presents, but even this is not overplayed. The performances and the writing are mature enough to explore thematic material rather than create insecurities these characters don’t seem to have. So even a scene like the pillow talk is not about any sort of forced love triangle. It’s about feelings that might naturally arise from the arrival of an old friend from another country; another life.

A Staten Island Ferry ride is another standout sequence. Here, Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography incorporates a beautiful tracking shot in near-silhouette, and the waterside setting recalls other great recent films about immigrating to the United States, such as Brooklyn or The Visitor. There is a casual-yet-thoughtful sort of tone in these vignette-style scenes during Hae Sung’s visit. The dialogue and acting are so naturalistic that you feel like you know these people. Even though not everyone can personally relate to the immigrant experience, everyone can certainly relate to thinking on their life and wondering, “what if?”

Contributing to the film’s wealth of genuine emotion is its musical score by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen. There isn’t necessarily a clear melody or theme, but that actually helps in a way, because any kind of repeated iconic theme would distract from the humanity of the picture. What we hear is almost like an orchestra or modern jazz band warming up, like a half-imagined backing track to a half-imagined life.

What strikes me as most incredible about Past Lives is that it seamlessly combines moments of revelatory happiness with moments of searing heartbreak. It’s yet another way the film feels so real. That’s what life is, when you think about it — pain and joy, past and present. | George Napper

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