Artsy-Fartsy Love

‘Past Lives’ is the “quality” option in a summer of loud franchise movies

In a movie season full of toy IP, superhero multiverses, and booming eighth-sequel franchise nonsense, ‘Past Lives,’ a low-budget three-character chamber romance from Korean-American playwright Celine Song, has quietly seized the rail as the movie for grownups. Past Lives tells the simple, nuanced story of Nora Moon (played with low-key charisma by Greta Lee), also a Korean-American playwright, who was once Korean-Canadian and before that native-born Korean. Nora lives in the East Village, married to a sweet, schlubby Jewish novelist whose most recent book, ‘Boner,’ appears to be 500 pages. If that book’s title indicates that we’re in for a satire, it’s a bit of a misdirect. Past Lives takes itself very seriously, and only occasionally elicits warm chuckles of recognition.

PAST LIVES ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Celine Song
Written by: Celine Song
Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro
Running time: 106 min

The plot goes into motion when Nora’s childhood sweetheart, Hae-Sung, visits New York on what appears to be a desperate quest to reignite what they once had when they were 12. In the hands of a more pulp-oriented writer, this would be the premise for a lurid, creepy thriller. But Song is far more interested in channeling Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Sunrise’ trilogy, and instead turns Nora and Hae-Sung’s reunion into a wistful meditation on nostalgia and time’s unstoppable march.

If all this sounds good, well, it is, but it’s never as good as it thinks it is, or wants to be. Lovers torn apart by time, space, and circumstance is one of the oldest romantic themes, and has populated movies from Brief Encounter, to Somewhere in Time, to The Notebook, to The Lake House. Past Lives somewhat resembles those films, but is almost a commentary on them, and elicits thoughts of Wong Kar-Wai’s elegant period romance In The Mood For Love. Nora and Hae-sung have a sort of eternal connection, but it’s with their former selves. Now he’s an impossibly dull Seoul salaryman who lives with his parents, and she’s a downtown artist type who dreams of winning a Tony but will probably settle with having a play produced. These are not star-crossed lovers. They are more like people who sat next to each other on a plane once.

The film also has pacing problems. In between the sweet childhood scenes and Hae-Sung’s visit, there’s an interminable middle bit, which the previews do not show, where Nora and Hae-Sung have a series of endless, boring Skype conversations. There’s no Skype sex. They don’t even really flirt. They just talk about what they’re having for dinner. It’s a solid 50 minutes before Nora heads off to her Montauk writer’s retreat to mack on her future husband.

Céline and Jesse, in the “Before” movies, which, again, Past Lives most resembles, have a will-they-or-won’t-they flirt-around-a pole vibe, but that connection is absolutely electric, charged with intellectual and erotic tension. Nora and Hae-Sung spend a lot of time gazing at each other and saying “Whoa!” If she leaves her supportive husband, who knows her and loves her, for this strange little man from her past, it would be the greatest mistake anyone has ever made. So there’s never really any doubt about what’s going to happen. Hae-Sung is a handsome dud.

Song’s dialogue feels very real and lived-in. Many of us have had childhood crushes or old friends who reappear. We try to remember who, or what, we were then, and then we just move on with our ordinary lives. This is the movie that captures that very real, true experience. I also appreciated the fact that our main artistic couple live in a small, shitty, unglamorous apartment. And when we see the husband on his own, he’s not writing, he’s on his phone or playing video games.

This is not fake New York. It’s authentic. It’s also kind of boring. Nora and Hae-Sung have no chemistry, no real frisson. Maybe that’s what “quality” moviegoers want right now, after years of getting smacked in the face by CGI. But for all its pretensions toward social realism, this is still a romantic melodrama at core. And though this is a quality movie by any definition, I like my romantic melodrama with a little more juice.


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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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