Film: “Past Lives” directed by Celine Song
The Korean concept of “In-Yun”—a kind of fate tied to romantic relationships—informs the love triangle (more like a “like triangle”) at the heart of Celine Song’s splendid new indie “Past Lives.”
The story begins in Seoul circa mid-1990s, when two young classmates, the headstrong girl Na Yung (Greta Lee) and the meek boy, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) fall in puppy love. This nascent friendship is shattered when Na Yung and her family emigrate to Canada (she eventually lands in the US.)
With the arrival of social media, however, it becomes easier to track down long-lost friends. After Hae Sung finishes his military service 12 years later, he posts on Facebook that he is looking for Na Yung (now named Nora), a post which she happens to see. They reconnect through video calls for a while, attempting to renew the friendship but the timing doesn’t work out for either.
Meanwhile Nora who’s become a playwright has met Arthur (John Magaro) at a writer’s conference in the Hamptons. They fall in love and marry. Back in Korea, Hae Sung has saved his pennies and comes to visit Nora who lives in the East Village. He and Nora go sightseeing and husband Arthur joins them later for dinner. Needless to say, the encounter is awkward.
So which couple has In-Yun here? Nora and Arthur? Or Nora and Hae Sung, who remains enamored of what Nora was, rather than what she has become? Nora keeps you guessing as to what will happen, naughtily teasing her husband about Hae Sung: “He's really masculine in a way that's just—I think—so Korean."
This is an exquisite and thoughtful film, sparsely written and scored with music so unobtrusive yet beautiful it deserves a special shoutout. (Thank you, Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen.) Besides “In-Yon” or romantic fate, the movie also says something about the immigrant experience: i.e., that while Nora has become American, she cannot disavow her Korean-ness which Hae Sung’s visit evokes.
Bravo to Celine Song on her directorial debut. Streaming on Apple TV.
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