“A married woman reconnects with a long lost love and has to make a decision” could be the capsule description of a torrid love affair film or a deeply saccharine romance. It might portend deceit, drama, lust, or any number of exciting and possibly illicit character beats. When one adds in the more modern layer of social media and the internet, it is not any less pregnant with dramatic possibility, but for some might feel slightly closer to more personal experiences many of us who remember the changes these technologies made to our lives have had. When I sat down to watch  Past Lives at the 2023 CHICAGO CRITICS FILM FESTIVAL, I knew from the trailer that if we were getting a love triangle, it would at least be subtle in style. It is in fact not that at all, rather it tells a story of loss and rediscovery, but somehow avoids the more melodramatic possibilities that premise holds. Past Lives creates a narrative space in which our characters think about their identities, the experience of assimilation and hybridity, and allow for the possibility of growth. It is in essence a deeply human film that explores love and relationships but is not limited to a romantic tale.

Young friends Nora and Hae Sung are nurturing a tween crush, the sort of 12 year old infatuation that leaves a deep mark but might one day be only a memory. This connection ends though when Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea, but thanks to the internet and social media the two are virtually connected some time later. When that long distance connection ends the two grow apart living separate lives until Hae Sung visits New York and makes time to see Nora, who he hasn’t seen in person for 24 years. If you haven’t seen the trailer and thus caught what I could only call “the vibe” of this film the above description might strike you as beyond melodramatic. Some might dismiss it as the kind of pulpy romance fantasy appropriate for Lifetime or Hallmark or a soap opera from afar though such a judgment of those works would also be unfair. These kinds of intense romance stories can be dripping with a longing and desire that allows many of us an escape into sexy and exciting fantasy or some sort of emotional catharsis. Past Lives is not about catharsis I suspect, but is more about growth and healing and identity.

There are a few notable accomplishments in Past Lives, the debut feature from writer and director Celine Song. There are of course the incredible performances from Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro. There is the effortlessly beautiful cinematography that enhances and deepens the narrative without ever feeling intrusive or conspicuous. The film offers a gentle exploration of love and loss that does not take the emotions of its characters for granted. The narrative interweaves joy and sadness in equal measure, accomplishing an incredible balancing act that is hard to believe. The thing that struck me the most though was how easily Past Lives manages to take seriously the context and identities at play is this narrative beyond the scenario of young love and growing out of it. Past Lives is a miracle of tone in the ways it never becomes cynical or sentimental beyond what is demanded, but its greatest feet might be telling such an incredibly personal and specific story while incorporating ideas about immigration, the internet, and culture itself.

Celine Song has a very fraught path to walk here. The film needs the audience to understand the context both of these two characters initial infatuation and the ways that under the right circumstances this kind of connection might stick with you. Their moments together alternate between joyful and awkward in exactly the way we need them to as an audience to believe not in their fated romance, simply in the idea that the memory of their time might linger and return. Then we see the ways social media reconnected all manner of folks who may have lost connection. I suspect there are many of us who have our own stories of people we only have remembered who we found again in the virtual world, but in this case we believe in the ways this reconnection might resonate for Nora and Hae Sung and it has weight. Finally, Song has to bring these two together, separated now by 24 years, and have us see their time ultimately with compassion. No spoilers but the film does not deliver soapy camp or intense relationship drama. Certainly, for any director telling a story of people of relationship there can be a draw to spectacle. Song doesn’t just avoid this, but replaces with oceans of emotion that feel that much more real. This film is deeply and unforgettably human, and it is accomplished through an attention to detail and tone.

The performances of course make this accomplishment, this near magic trick that Song pulls off, possible at all. Most will justifiably focus on Greta Lee and Teo Yoo as they are on screen the most and  have quite the nuanced story to tell between their conversations and glances. I found them charming in these roles and compelling to watch together and alone. The shining start is of course Greta Lee who must be relatable enough for us to invest in her life, but mysterious enough that the audience is not sure they know what she is feeling or thinking all the time. I do not want to miss, though, the difficult position this narrative places John Magaro in as Arthur, Nora’s white husband who wants to understand and connect to Nora’s culture while also fearing the distance her experience creates between them. His character rightfully names that, in a different story, he would be the villain standing between long lost lovers. Fully knowing the position he is in and the complex emotions his partner is facing, Arthur is infused by Magaro with an incredibly nuanced empathy which is both noble but also vulnerable. He is able to be there with Nora, but it is not easy, and Magaro communicates this fully in his performance.

This dynamic highlights my favorite aspect of Past Lives. The film tells a story of loss not just of love or the illusion of love, but of self and the past. It explores in very subtle but also very potent ways identity, immigration, and connection. It does that by taking very seriously the specific context and circumstances these characters are in, even making the structure of the film reliant on these details. The situation of immigrating from South Korea to Canada, then going to school in the US, of suddenly having things like Facebook and Skype and how they complicated relationships, all these things are not just plot points but opportunities for this movie. In interweaving them the film allows the particularity of this narrative to widen into something universal. This is no easy task. To create a story that, in making the very concrete details of its characters widen the implications of narrative and move the story with compassion and not just with conflict is impressive. In doing so with such care for these characters, and concern for their particular experiences not just personally but socially, Song has created a film that both broke and healed me a bit. I left the movie thinking about the “me” that was, who that person was, and how his pains and joys became a part of my own passions..

Past Lives is a triumph of a debut film. It has the seeds within it of its own destruction, to become too cynical about love or too sentimental about loves lost. It could spill over into the kind of intense melodrama that is not so much false as it is distracting from our true selves. It feels, even while moving in a beautiful and dream like way, achingly real and true. It hurts to watch, but it is the hurt of something that is coming back together. It left me feeling vulnerable, but comfortable with being so exposed.

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