Sundance 2023: Past Lives, by David Bax
Sometimes I’ll have a memory that comes unstuck in time. I remember something happened but I can’t remember when it was. Usually, to remedy this, I’ll start trying to associate the memory with actual, physical locations. Where was I living when this thing happened? Where did I work? Celine Song‘s Past Lives is a film that fully lives within these connections between time and place. In its opening minutes, it traverses nearly a quarter century, a period of time and experiences in one woman’s life which it divides into unequal parts located in Seoul, Toronto and New York. So, when someone from that first time/place apportionment shows up in the third one, he feels like a visitor from another dimension.
Nora (Greta Lee) is the one who has traveled all those distances and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) is the recent re-arrival, a childhood friend and possible crush from Seoul who has come to New York at a point in his life where he feels unmoored and looked up his old pal, now a working playwright married to a novelist named Arthur (John Magaro). Song (who also wrote the screenplay) is honest and empathetic about Arthur’s insecurity about his marriage in the face of this handsome ghost from the past. But Past Lives is Nora’s story, not his.
As Nora and Hae Sung spend time together, reminiscing and reconnecting, Song and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner (who shot all of Steve McQueen‘s Small Axe films), find simple but elegant ways of framing them. The images and the characters’ spatial relationships within them become such a part of the story that, in the final act, simple moments like an awkward silence at a bar or waiting for an Uber transmit tremendous power.
Song and Kirchner also contrast the sharp lines and angles of their framing with a colorfully but softly lit version of New York City. A place made of unyielding steel, brick and concrete thus becomes positively oneiric.
It’s painful but unavoidable that we will never know what could have happened if we’d made slightly different choices. It’s not regret; Nora is happy with Arthur and that would be too narrow a word for this kind of yearning anyway. But it still hurts sometimes to think about the things that didn’t happen. It’s a ghostly kind of grieving. Nora and Hae Sung may have lived extraordinary lives together. But, then again, she and Arthur may do so still. Life is uncertain. Of course, we all know that, but Past Lives is the kind of work of art that makes universally understood truths suddenly feel new and profound.