The Pitch: 25 years ago, a young Korean girl named Nora (Greta Lee) was friends with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), a boy in her class with whom she went on one parent-supervised date before her family immigrated to Canada. Living in separate countries, the two of them fell out of touch, until the rise of Facebook 12 years later reconnected them, and from their respective homes in New York and Korea, they began communicating again, forming a deep enough affinity that their geographic distance became too difficult to handle emotionally.
So, Nora and Hae Sung took a break from each other, and in the 12 years that followed, moved on with their lives, with Nora becoming a professional playwright and marrying Arthur (John Magaro), a novelist she met at a writers’ retreat. Then, in the present day, Hae Sung decides to go on vacation in New York, leading to his and Nora’s first in-person reunion in years… It’s a great story, and everyone involved knows it.
Get Ready to Remember the Glory Days of Skype: It’s so rare to see a movie like Past Lives, one in which every detail is so perfectly defined by writer/director Celine Song. From the film’s loving depiction of what it was like trying to get Skype working in the first decade of the 2000s, to who pours who a glass of water in an intimate scene between two married people, every element seen on screen feels exactly right, deliberately chosen to enhance the story being told.
And that’s hugely important in considering a film where the scope of the drama might seem small at first, but comes to expand out to encompass so much about love, modern relationships, and cultural identity. It all happens within the microcosm of a few days of time, with these three people doing their best to figure out what it means, when the past comes crashing into her present.
Nora’s relationship with Hae Sung goes beyond nostalgia, though — she’s fascinated by the fact that “he’s so Korean,” because in her eyes, his perspective, values, and goals are all representative of a country she left behind as a child, along with her original Korean name (she chooses an English name off her father’s suggestion, just before the family moves from Korea). Yet despite their differences, they still share a connection, one which is played out so delicately as Nora and Hae Sung play tourist in New York.
Not Quite a Ménage à Trois: With a cast this small, the chemistry has to be perfection, and fortunately Song has assembled the exact right trio to anchor this piece. It’s one of those situations where every actor isn’t just right for their specific character, but in how their characters relate to the others; even something as minor as John Magaro being shorter in stature than Teo Yoo feels like a significant choice.