Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) are childhood sweethearts in Korea. They are on the verge of a sweet pre-pubescent romance and even have a charming date in a park chaperoned by her mum when Nora's family emigrate to Canada.
Twelve years later, Nora and Hae Sung rediscover each other via social media and create a Skype romance that moves rapidly from whimsical to serious and then frightening. Frightening because an actual romance will require compromise: Hae Song has to do his military service and is committed to studying engineering in Korea; Nora has been accepted to a writer's retreat in Montauk. Both put their careers before their relationship.
We jump forward another twelve years and Nora is seemingly happily married to fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro). They seem happy despite the cultural barriers between them. He tries to learn Korean to narrow the gap - to go with her into her instinctive dream language. But at the same time, as she explains to him, she doesn't feel Korean, especially when she contrasts herself to Hae Sung. He is "so Korean". She is Korean American.
Hae Sung finally travels to New York and the weight of two decades of emotion become apparent. How does one weigh up the the pull of childhood love and cultural resonance against the reality of change, maturity and cultural difference? Is Hae Song drawn to - does he even know and understand - Nora now? Is she attracted to Hae Song or to a nostalgia for Seoul?
Song's film is delicate, quiet, elegant and wistful. It speaks to the impossibility of going back and recapturing a different time and place - a certain innocence. But it is not melancholy. It celebrates the fact that people grow and move forward and that while this might make a rekindled romance impossible and undesirable, it acknowledges the need for.... well....acknowledgement. You can both love your husband and acknowledge your real feelings for a childhood sweetheart, and the potency of a fantasy of the road not taken.
The three leads are all strong in this film. But for me the standouts are Song's taut, spare script and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner's washed-out palette and framing. Often we see characters set apart from each other in the same frame, or filmed from a distance while their voices utter dialogue unrelated to that moment. We are at a distance, withheld from their true feelings, and this perfectly captures the ambiguity about what those feelings truly are. At the end of the film, we know far more than the unseen couple speculating on the triumvirate's relationships at a bar at the start of the film, but we don't really know them fully. And that is as it should be.
PAST LIVES is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 105 minutes. It played Berlin and Sundance 2023 and was released in the USA in June. It will be released in the UK on September 8th.