Sundance has always been the place to go to spot the best new filmmaking talent, but it’s hard to imagine a debut quite as impressive as Celine Song’s. Her debut film, Past Lives, has been hailed as one of the best of the year already, and for good reason; it’s a staggeringly strong and affecting look at not just the immigrant experience, but the universal question of “what if?”.
The film follows Nora (Greta Lee), who moves from Korea to Toronto as a child and later relocated to New York to pursue a career as a playwright. She has lost touch with her childhood best friend Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), but reconnects with him 12 years after leaving Korea, only to lose touch again and reconnect another 12 years later.
Now married to Arthur (John Magaro), Nora arranges to meet with Hae Sung on his trip to New York. The two carefully navigate their feelings and New York City while trying to figure out what they want from life and each other.
The film’s name comes from a Korean concept of in-yeon, which means that anyone you meet in this life, you’ve met before. If you’re lucky enough to fall in love, it means that you’ve met that person in 8000 previous lives, all leading up to this trajectory. It’s a lovely, romantic idea and provides Past Lives with plenty of substance.
The film opens with Hae Sung, Nora and Arthur sitting at a bar. As the camera slowly approaches them, we hear the voice over of strangers wondering who they are and how they’re all related. We later visit the same scene, from Nora’s perspective and gain insight into the complex, nuanced dynamic between these three characters.
Past Lives heavily borrows from Song’s own life. The bar scene is almost directly lifted from her own life and experiences, but the film successfully avoids melodrama in the exploration of Nora’s desires. It feels wrong to reveal too much of Past Lives’ narrative; the way Song carefully unveils the story is one of the film’s strengths.
Song is able to compellingly capture affection, yearning and disappointment without using words. It’s powerful stuff, and proves that Song has what it takes to be a visual artist, a filmmaker. Her camera often just observes Hae Sung and Nora as they breathe in each other’s company and quietly wonder if they’ve made the right choices in their lives. We’re allowed to really observe and scrutinise Lee and Yoo’s subtle, persuasive performances.
Although the internal, romantic conflict between Hae Sung and Nora is at the centre of Past Lives, it’s Magaro’s Arthur who proves to be endlessly fascinating. He’s clearly the third wheel here and in all honesty, he isn’t afforded much to say or to do, but Magaro’s magnificent performance lends it gravitas and pathos. Arthur is impossibly kind and understanding, almost infuriatingly so, but his love for Nora is pure and innocent. “You make my life so much bigger,” he tells her and it’s this moment where Past Lives completely broke me.
Song’s masterful direction and ability to tell a story mostly visually make Past Lives a masterpiece. It’s an eloquent, alluring film about what we leave behind and what we gain from it. Song never succumbs to easy sentimentality or big, emotional bursts, opting for a more low-key style, but this is Filmmaking with a capital F and one of the strongest debuts in recent memory.
Past Lives is screening now at Sundance Film Festival London and is scheduled to be released in the UK 8 September.