Less than two weeks have passed since the press screening of Celine Song’s highly-praised romance, “Past Lives,” in Vary. Initially, my impressions were rather cold, and I hoped that time might alter my perspective. Unfortunately, my sentiments have further soured, and here’s a quick recap explaining why this anticipated future Oscar contender fell short for me.
In brief, “Past Lives” centers around two childhood friends, Nora (played by Greta Lee) and Hae-Sung (portrayed by Yoo Teo). The duo last saw each other in school, where a strong bond was formed but never fully blossomed into something more. Nora eventually emigrated to Canada with her parents and later settled in New York, becoming a writer. Hae-Sung, however, never forgot her, and after two decades—with an interlude in between—he visits her in New York for a weekend. Adding complexity to this reunion is Nora’s marriage to the affable Arthur (a compelling performance by John Magaro).
Much of this setup occupies the first half of the film. The second half attempts to emotionally engage the audience as Nora and Hae-Sung awkwardly reconnect in an unusually peaceful New York setting. Unfortunately, the emotional resonance falls flat, possibly due to the agonizingly slow pace and unengaging narration. Additionally, the film’s audiovisual elements are so polished they feel like an Apple commercial, often overshadowing the emotions the story aims to evoke.
The film does improve slightly in its second half when Nora and Hae-Sung finally share the same continent. The pace remains slow, but the dialogues are well-written, providing something to grasp onto. The film gains a modicum of tension thanks to Nora’s restless husband Arthur, who nervously observes the reunion and hopes it doesn’t devolve into a clichéd romantic drama. However, this meta-narrative layer could have been explored further.
My main issue with “Past Lives” lies in its predictability. From the get-go, it’s apparent how the narrative will unfold. The rigid structure leaves little room for surprises or emotional confrontations. Even between the main characters, most of the significant exchanges occur in the realm of unspoken thoughts and dreams.
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