By SALINA POST
Writer-director Celine Song makes a stunning debut with a romance that is deeply affecting, yet solidly connected to the real world.
This kind of emotional resonance, without a fairytale setting, quirky plot contrivances, or whimsical silliness is decidedly unusual in modern cinema—some call them “love stories for grown-ups,” and Hollywood hasn’t been comfortable making them since Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer lit up the screen.
Sincere but realistic romantic dramas are difficult to pull off in our current age of irony, but when they’re done well—like Past Lives—they’re absolutely unforgettable. Song’s love story is a triptych, portraying two soulmates, Na Youn and Hae Sung, in their adolescence, young adulthood, and then approaching middle age.
With each chapter, their connection becomes more vivid and absorbing, despite the fact they’re physically separated so long—Na Youn (renaming herself “Nora”) moves to New York, marries a writer, and becomes a renowned playwright herself. Hae Sung, who remained in South Korea, re-connects with Nora through Facebook. Sparks are rekindled. Past, present, and future begin to merge. Nora’s attraction is tempered by moral qualms but also, subtly, a desire to distance herself from her native country. But as Song suggests, our present selves are inextricably bound to our past selves, like being in a constant state of reincarnation.
Other films would’ve treated such ideas as magic (or worse, as “Asian mysticism”); but Past Lives is intriguingly philosophical without ever smothering the heart of its romance. Greta Lee and Teo Yoo are wonderful as the adult Nora and Hae Sung, conveying more passion and intimacy through Skype conversations than most actors can muster in sweaty embraces.
Forbidden love is perhaps the most intoxicating kind, and Past Lives tantalizes viewers before culminating in an unexpected, powerful emotional climax.
Rated PG-13 for profanity.
In English and Korean with subtitles.
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