Late in “Past Lives,” there’s a scene in which two people walk down a street and silently wait for an Uber, captured in a single shot. Like the film itself, it is a deceptively simple moment, a seemingly mundane interaction that is simmering with tension and fraught with meaning, the ticking clock of the car’s imminent arrival pulling the narrative taut. It’s a deft and daring choice from filmmaker Celine Song, especially since she just lets the audience take this in, secure in the knowledge that our attentive patience has been carefully earned over the course of “Past Lives,” a film that is at once about two minutes, a day, a year, 12 years, a lifetime and many lifetimes.
The essence of cinema, one could argue, is the manipulation of time, which is extended, compressed, sliced and reorganized with ease on screen. Time is what Song sets out to tease apart in her debut feature “Past Lives”: the vastness and brevity of lifetimes, the piercing nature of memory, the push and pull between fate and our own effort on existence. She presents these monumental questions with an autobiographical story about a childhood sweetheart visiting his lost love many years after they were separated.
Hae-Sung (Teo Yoo) has big, sad eyes. Nora (Greta Lee) has a quick, mischievous smile. They see each other for the first time in 12 years across a glitchy Skype connection circa 2012, smiling shyly and not saying much. The last time they had seen each other was in Seoul, right before Nora, formerly known as Na Young (Seung-Ah Moon) emigrated with her family to Canada. Now she lives in New York City, trying to make it as a playwright. They reconnect in adulthood after Nora stumbles upon a random Facebook post, and the two old pals tumble easily into an obsessive long-distance friendship that threatens to tip into romance if only they had some time together.
Relegated to a laptop screen, their connection eventually turns from sweet to somber. Nora needs a break to focus on her work. Their friendship dissipates again, and another 12 years pass. Nora’s married now, to another writer, Arthur (John Magaro), but Hae-Sung is coming to New York – to visit her. Suddenly Nora’s youthful connection is finally given some time to breathe.
Song leaps and skips over decades in “Past Lives,” peppering the narrative with flashbacks and lingering in golden moments. As a writer and director she is at once patient and efficient, slicing through the years to find the significant moments, seemingly snatched out of thin air and savored. She masters time, and then introduces fate: the concept of “In-yun,” a Korean belief about the preordained connections between people, as Nora explains to Arthur as they’re first getting to know each other. Whether it’s brushing against someone on the street or a lifelong marriage, In-yun is at play, bringing two people together, connected by their past lives as lovers, partners, strangers in close proximity or a bird on a branch. It’s a powerful and heady force in their lives, or maybe it’s just a seduction technique, as Nora laughs it off.
The treatment of time, which is stretched and pulled, crumpled, torn and put back together, makes “Past Lives” a deeply meditative and existentially curious piece, but the thoughtful 35mm cinematography by Shabier Kirchner brings a rare and truly beautiful quality of warmth and grain to the film, evoking a sense of moody sumptuousness, the celluloid drinking up light and texture. Kirchner’s camera tells us what we need to know about these characters in relationship to each other, linking them in space, drifting from face to face in conversations, or boxing out a third wheel.
Lee holds the center as a woman who has palpable, but distinct, chemistry with these two men but remains a bit of a mystery to both. Yoo is especially fantastic as the vulnerable yet stoic Hae-Sung; Magaro rounds out the trio as the lovable, befuddled Arthur. The performances are tremendous, of a piece with the entire film, which is a truly stunning cinematic achievement marrying emotion and storytelling with form, and creating something so universally relatable out of a story so specific and personal. With the beautifully wrought “Past Lives,” Song argues for making emotional space for these fated connections, acknowledging those who have been meaningful to us, and who may still be, whether it was lifetimes, a few years or even a moment ago.