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‘Past Lives’ (review)


Past Lives is about nonsense, but not the nonsense we normally talk about in this space.

No supermen from another world are here to battle injustice, no monsters from beyond time are here to stagger the understanding. Past Lives is small, warm, intimate and full of detail and for some that passes as realism in film.

So it’s important to get this point absolutely clear before we begin: Past Lives is about the nonsense that makes life worth living.

Real love is trench warfare: it takes work, pain, discretion, sacrifice and even with all that you still may never get past No Man’s Land. Only gods and dogs love in the absolute– we need to do our part with everyone else. In that romantic anxiety we tell ourselves stories about soulmates and destiny because we long for the certainty they imply.

Past Lives plays into these hopes without submitting to them. Celine Song’s debut film has been compared to the work of the great Wong Kar-wai, particularly his classic In the Mood for Love, but it owes almost nothing to him cinematically. Whereas Wong is developing the techniques and style of the French New Wave, Song’s film is much more Anglo in its visual influences with an opening shot that could have been storyboarded by Hitchcock or De Palma.

Past Lives is the story of Na/Nora Song (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) who are childhood friends at exactly the delicate age children realize they want a partner without understanding why. Song’s parents emigrate to America, and twelve years later the two discover that they have been searching for one another online, looking to reconnect.  The experience ironically goes too well: they get too close too fast and when neither is willing to make the transcontinental trip to see the other, Nora breaks things off. Twelve years later, Nora is married but Hae is coming to New York to see her again. The film juxtaposes their unfulfilled attraction with Nora’s uncertain relationship with her husband in a delicate slowburn.

Song understands, as all great romantics do, that the only “perfect” loves are those who go unfulfilled– those that can never be cheapened by mortgage payments, or chores or the muck of life in general. There is nothing people can love more than they love the ideal of another person and that ideal inevitably dies when you hear them snore enough times. Ilsa and Rick will always love one another while Ilsa and Victor Lazslo do the hard work of political provocation and marriage in America. And so, to me the most interesting character in Past Lives is neither Nora nor Hae but Nora’s husband, Arthur (John Magaro) who lives in the agony of loving a woman and knowing that you love her more than she loves you. And so, he allows, and even encourages the final game to play out because defeat is preferable to limbo.

Extras include commentary, an EPK, Deleted Scenes and Trailer.

Is there a greater bit of poetic irony in cinema in the last ten years than the final sequence where there can be no victory or defeat, only a reckoning. When you can hold your partner and have them at their weakest, most vulnerable moment but know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you will never be able to bring them to such an outburst. As Nora and Hae consider, like Tantalus, the untouchable perfect grapes they represent to one another Arthur lives secure in the knowledge that he has been chosen, but wounded by the certainty that it was against the argument of his wife’s heart.

Highly recommended.

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