Past Lives is the latest film from the esteemed A24 film studios, and the debut feature of Korean-Canadian director Celine Song. It depicts two childhood sweethearts, Nora and Hae Sung, who, after Nora’s immigration to North America, fall out of contact. We then follow their interactions for the following two decades, and what unravels is a heart-wrenching tale of connection, friendship, and loss. Song has had a decade-long career in theatre, but was inspired to write Past Lives when she experienced what would become the opening scene of the film while in a New York bar. She found herself sitting between her husband and her childhood sweetheart, translating between the two. She recalls: “It occurred to me that I was translating between two parts of my own self”.
Although this is her very first attempt at directing, Celine Song comes across as extremely comfortable behind the camera. She knows exactly when to allow a scene space to breathe, and this is truly a marker of her talent, since many directors cannot afford “quiet” moments, lest they lose the audience’s attention. Song, however, exhibits a deft command over the pacing of her scenes, such that even prolonged sequences with absolutely no dialogue can be devastatingly powerful. This is no doubt enhanced by her choice to shoot on 35mm film, creating an aesthetic which is steeped in nostalgia, and particularly beautiful when combined with the film’s themes around memory.
Song, however, exhibits a deft command over the pacing of her scenes, such that even prolonged sequences with absolutely no dialogue can be devastatingly powerful.
Another strength of the film is its score by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen. The soundscape of this film similarly employs intentional silence, with moments often playing out with only the ambient noise of New York City in the background. The music used is minimalistic, but powerful; Song explains: “You always want the audience to feel the longing for music half a second before the music comes”. In other words, Past Lives brings the audience to an emotional breaking point, then the soft guitar of the soundtrack comes in, and the effect is potent.
The main highlight of this film, though, is how human the characters feel. A culmination of all the great artists who worked together to produce this story, every detail feels tangible, like these are real people we know, and are eavesdropping in on. The screenplay is written in a manner that mirrors everyday idiosyncrasies; awkward silences, language barriers, trying to talk over skype with bad internet.
In other words, Past Lives brings the audience to an emotional breaking point, then the soft guitar of the soundtrack comes in, and the effect is potent.
These elements birth a unique emotional resonance that is seldom seen in modern cinema, especially in the mainstream. Although Past Lives is a lesser-known project, I urge you to make time for it; it may not be a grand scale character study like Oppenheimer, or the next instalment in the MCU, but smaller films such as this can offer an experience which rivals even the highest budget blockbusters. This is evident from the likes of 2016’s Moonlight, which went on to win best picture at the Oscars, and I sincerely hope Celine Song receives her own academy-level recognition next year—for such an outstanding directorial debut, she deserves it.