Past Lives review: A gentle drama about first love and thirtysomething melancholy

Nora (Greta Lee), the woman at the centre of Past Lives, Celine Song’s vaguely autobiographical tale of scuppered romance, feels completely unknowable. It’s what makes her so mesmerising. She’s Korean-Canadian, having emigrated with her parents when she was 12, but now finds herself, 12 years later, in New York City pursuing a career as a playwright (she oversees an audition at one point, and the monologue being read is from Song’s own 2020 play, Endlings). While reminiscing over the phone with her mother (Ji Hye Yoon), she decides to look up her childhood sweetheart on Facebook – the year is 2010, or so – only to discover that he’s already attempted to make contact with her.

Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora reconnect over Skype – again, it’s 2010 – and the ease of their conversation borders on the magical. They talk, talk, and talk, and hurtle towards a romance. Then, Nora unexpectedly shuts things down. “I want to commit to my life here,” she argues. Another 12 years pass in an instant, and when Hae Sung turns up in New York, he reunites with a Nora who’s now married (to Arthur, played by John Magaro) and a stranger to the young girl she used to be, when she was known as Na Young.

Past Lives isn’t quite the woozy, lovelorn drama that its trailers have sold, or that Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s gentle score gestures towards. But it is an eloquent attempt to understand how our memories can end up turning other people into projection screens for our own, confused desires. Nora comes across as wistful, a constellation of possibilities. She’s a little frustrating, too – a person stuck on the precipice of a revelation. Lee was joyous in Netflix’s Russian Doll, but here she reins that energy in, concentrates it, and intensifies it.

Hae Sung, played by Yoo with sweet, wilted vulnerability, is an open book. He loves Nora, it’s obvious. And he’s so earnestly romantic, to the point of naiveté, that he’s almost unreal – a manic pixie dream boy representation of the life Nora left behind in Seoul. Does she actually love Hae Sung? The answer to that question eludes Nora, Past Lives, and the director herself, as Song’s script allows these strikingly mature and reasonable adults to work through some very difficult emotions.

There’s not a single shot or line here that isn’t deliberate. Nora and Hae Sung are largely kept separate from each other onscreen, in a film full of great, empty swathes of negative space. When Nora explains the Korean concept of “In-Yun”, in which people’s lives are fated to intersect, again and again, through cycles of life and reincarnation, she suggests that true love represents the culmination of 8,000 of those intersections. After that point, Song litters the background with romancing couples and random bodies who casually drift into and out of frame, propelled by their own stories.

Arthur, meanwhile, is never reduced to an obstacle; he understands what Hae Sung means to Nora, and never gets caught up in any ordinary jealousy. When he asks her if she’s happy with him, she deflects slightly. “This is where I’m supposed to be,” she insists. But Nora’s voice wavers, ever so slightly – how can anyone ever be certain they’re happy when there are so many different people they could have become?

Dir: Celine Song. Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Ji Hye Yoon, Choi Won-young. 12A, 106 minutes.

‘Past Lives’ is in cinemas from 8 September