There’s something very appropriate about the first track in Past Lives. Not only is Leonard Cohen‘s heartbreak ballad ‘That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ accurately describing the abrupt farewell between two childhood friends, but the poet laureate of pop’s softly sung wisdom also contains some of the same subtle cleverness that makes playwright Celine Song’s debut film so compelling.
Kicking off in late 1990s Seoul, South Korea, the story follows Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) who become inseparable pals but are cruelly parted when Nora’s family move to North America. Twelve years later, they reconnect via the internet (anyone remember Skype?). Nora is now a promising literary talent in New York and Hae Sung an engineering student back home. It’s obvious each has lingering feelings for the other. To continue to talk about the plot would be to spoil it, but Past Lives eventually jumps 12 years into the future again – and an intensely moving finale might break you into irreparable pieces. Seriously, it makes Marley & Me look like playtime at doggy daycare.
That’s actually the only truly overwhelming bit of the film though. As with Cohen’s best tunes, Past Lives‘ possesses quiet power. Much of its most gripping sections are wordless, such as when Nora and Hae Sung awkwardly smile at each other over video call, not knowing how to break the ice after so long. Each yearning look, every anxious giggle slowly adds to the tension until you’ll be standing on your cinema seat screaming for them to “get on and shag already!” Then there’s the script, which features corny sayings including “marriage is planting two trees in one pot” and “if you leave something behind, you gain something too”. In reality, these lines sound like something your grandma might bring out after one too many bedtime sherries, but when absorbed in Nora and Hae Sung’s journey feel like the first true thing you’ve ever heard. Past Lives will make you think your hardest, most devastating breakup was not only worth it, but the best moment of your life.
It’s not all wide-eyed insight and romantic misery though. Past Lives is also very, very funny. Hae Sung’s hapless mates, whom he regularly meets for (literally) drunken noodles, come off like the sophisticated Inbetweeners; and when, at a writing retreat in the country Nora greets a newcomer by telling them they “got the worst room”, you’ll snort into your popcorn. Song’s theatre background is obvious here, and at times, with its claustrophobic sets (Nora’s pokey flat, Hae Sung’s family’s small kitchen) and extended sequences with minimal characters, the film comes off like a play. Luckily, the beautiful urban backdrops help to make everything a bit more cinematic. Whether in NYC or Seoul, Song can scarcely resist signposting each location change with a soothing sunset or golden horizon. If Past Lives is anything to go by, her future in Hollywood will be just as bright.
- Director: Celine Song
- Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro
- Release date: September 7 (in UK cinemas)