REVIEW: Separation and reunion provide the pivots for ‘Past Lives’

Teo Yoo, left, and Greta Lee, right, share a look in this scene from “Past Lives.” (Jon Pack/A24 via AP)

Loosely based on Canadian-Korean director Celine Song’s own childhood love story, Song’s debut film, “Past Lives,” is achingly bittersweet from beginning to end as it tells the tale of two Korean natives and their various run-ins over their lifetimes. 

The audience is taken back in time to watch the childhoods of Na-Young (Greta Lee) and Hae-Sung (Teo Yoo) unfold. The two trudge up the narrow stairs of Seoul’s suburbs in silence, draw hearts on one another’s hands in class, run circles around each other in the rain, and eventually part ways as Na-Young turns into Nora and her family leaves for the States. 

The film then shows us the way the two grow up and grow apart as they lose contact with one another and lead their respective lives in different countries. Twelve years later, Nora is pursuing writing in New York and Hae-Sung is completing his mandatory military service when the two have their next run-in on Facebook. They Skype day after day for weeks and months before parting ways again on a promise to see each other another time when they’ve both made something of themselves. Except that they don’t see each other again, at least not for another twelve years. 

In-yun is a concept in Korean culture that suggests even strangers whose clothes brush once on a busy street have thousands of layers between them. It suggests that every person you meet you have met before and will meet again in every lifetime. This is the concept that drives “Past Lives” as well as Na-Young and Hae-Sung’s red strings of fate. The two have come in and out of one another’s lives for over 30 years. They ponder what things might have been different if Na-Young had never moved to America and became Nora. Would they be married? Have children? Still live in Seoul? Unfortunately, in this lifetime, they are something else for each other.

“Past Lives” cinematographer Shabier Kirchner stunningly reflects the film’s emotions through visuals, including the clumsiness of childhood love and the heartache of an adult-ruled reality that keeps it from growing. It captures the nostalgia of meeting an old friend when the two of you are entirely different people from when you first met, and the longing for lost loves that can no longer be pursued. From beginning to end, these images drive “Past Lives” as they pull at the audience the same way they pull at the characters.

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