In “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost makes poetry of a simple choice. Most of us know the ending, but midway through, he imagines returning one day to that metaphorical fork in order to try the other path: “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” In the beguiling study of untapped possibilities that is “Past Lives,” playwright Celine Song makes poetry of a similar situation, only this time, it’s a series of choices from her personal life — some she made herself, others decided for her by her parents — that set our minds to wondering about what might have been.
Song, who was born in South Korea, draws on her own history and culture in crafting this truly special feature debut, a treasure that is at once achingly autobiographical and disarmingly universal. Her script — so often understated, only to erupt with words when called for — introduces the notion of “In-Yun” to Western viewers, defining it as the universe’s way of reuniting souls who shared a connection in previous lives. It’s a lovely idea, served up so delicately, this low-key A24 offering could be the spiritual response to last year’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Where the Daniels’ movie took the bewildering multiverse approach, “Past Lives” is simple, slow and direct. Song’s characters are free to speculate, but there’s no going back. Or is there?
“Past Lives” takes place across three distinct periods, building the way “Moonlight” (another A24 film) did on memories minted and bonds forged in childhood. In the first segment, 12-year-old Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) moves from South Korea to Canada, abandoning her first crush in the process. She’s already decided she wants to be a writer when she grows up. Still, what can she possibly know of what her life might hold at that age? And what does she understand of what’s being left behind?
We haven’t quite gotten our bearings when the film skips forward a dozen years. The boy, Hae Sung, has grown up. Now played by Teo Yoo, he looks handsome if unhappy in uniform, doing his mandatory military service in Korea. Na Young, who now goes by Nora (Greta Lee), has immigrated again, this time to New York City, where her studies have set her on the course to becoming a playwright. By chance — or In-Yun? — she notices that Hae Sung has posted on her father’s Facebook page. Nora no longer identifies with the girl she was, but she remembers Hae Sung fondly and responds to his message, catching up over a series of video calls.
And then, almost as suddenly as those conversations began, she breaks it off. Twelve more years pass, and now Nora (still Lee) is married to a fellow writer, Arthur (John Magaro), whom she met at an artists’ retreat. Hae Sung has long since disappeared from her life when she learns that he’s planning to visit New York for a week. As if by some inevitable gravitational pull, “Past Lives” seems to have been moving toward this reunion from the beginning — and no wonder: The opening shows Nora seated between Arthur and Hae Sung at a bar.
It’s this tension that underlies the entire film, finally articulated in a conversation that grips us much as the walking-and-talking scenes did in Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise.” Ironically, “Past Lives” could be the inverse of that movie: It’s not about a spontaneous connection between strangers, but the power of tapping into a pre-established intimacy with someone you knew a lifetime ago, and with whom there seems to be unfinished business. Few are the films that offer such revelatory conversations between men and women.
That aforementioned bar scene is especially remarkable, in part because Song has already dedicated sufficient attention to all three characters. No one gets angry; no one throws a jealous punch. Nora’s husband has been studying Korean (in one of several unforgettable conversations, he explains that she relapses into her native tongue when talking in her sleep, and he wants to understand that hidden part of her). Hae Sung can manage a few words in English. But mostly, the two men of Nora’s life sit, separated by a language barrier and the woman they love. And there she is, stuck in the middle, suspended between what is and what could have been.
It might not have been the right decision to use the same actors, Lee and Yoo, in the middle and later segments of Nora’s life. There’s something beautiful but still-unformed about people in their early 20s, and the performers look too mature to convey it. That’s where Grizzly Bear collaborators Christopher Bear and Daniel Rosen’s music comes in handy: The score practically bubbles with potential during the scenes where Nora and Hae Sung are video chatting — a youthful sound, compared with later, when strings speak to what they might have missed out on.
Considering Song’s background as a playwright, it may surprise how much she trusts silence — or the absence of speech. Aided by DP Shabier Kirchner, she recognizes the visual potential of cinema, often privileging observation over listening, such that body language and surroundings (Seoul and New York play themselves) give viewers room to process. When the characters do talk, they express themselves beautifully, as in the amusingly meta scene where Arthur suggests that Nora use what’s happening in her work, then proceeds to analyze his role in the story.
For all the films that have been made about love triangles, Song has fashioned hers in the form of a circle, defying so many of the clichés in her quietly devastating way. Perhaps it’s because this ultra-personal project is about a feeling other than passion — one that evolves over the years, and which allows one life to contain multiple loves.