Sundance Review: Celine Song’s ‘Past Lives’

The word “romantic” doesn’t have much of a place in film these days, serving mostly as a “comedy” modifier. The term “women’s film” has also fallen out of fashion since its heyday in the 1940s, regardless of the fact that the films that exemplified it generally featured strong female characters and almost always pushed back against the pressures of the male-led society. with his debut Past LivesScreening to a double standing ovation this week in the premiere section of Sundance, playwright Celine Song has killed two birds with one stone, creating an elegant and unexpectedly compelling character piece that speaks deeply to the concept of love in the age modern while wearing a woman who is smart and ambitious, but still very relatable to do so.

Surprisingly, the film comes from A24, whose recent output has headed in a much different, more genre-focused direction, and also from Killer Films, historically known for much more edgy fare. But Killer’s longstanding relationship with Todd Haynes might be more significant here; there is a nostalgic mood for Past Liveswho remembers the velvet pot of gold the director’s concept experiments, and though it’s more or less set in the present day, Song’s film has an oddly dated feel. It recalls not only the mid-20th century, but also that magical period in the late ’80s and ’90s, when the indie world seemed wide open, when Chantal Akerman could raise money to put William Hurt and Juliette Binoche on A sofa in New YorkMerchant-Ivory Could Adapt Tama Janowitz’s Hipster Novel slaves of new yorkand Alan Rudolph was allowed to do, well, anything.

In its center, Past Lives is In the mood for love in the days of Skype, a lovely touch that brings its own Proustian rush when the chimes are heard. But the lovers here, if they really are true lovers, are separated by much more than convention. The film begins with an intriguing image. Three people are in a bar in New York, two of them are Korean, chatting intensely, while the third is a Westerner, clearly left out.

So what’s the story? Spanning decades and continents across 106 crisp minutes, Song’s film opens with two Seoul schoolmates, showing how, as a child, Young Na has a crush on her schoolmate Hae Sung, but leaves him willingly when their Bohemian parents move to Canada. Years later, Young Na becomes Nora (Greta Lee), a successful writer in New York, while Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) stays in Korea, where he does national service and becomes an engineer. However, despite their different paths, there is a latent bond that is awakened when Nora searches for her former crush on her Facebook.

There are calls and more calls, but Nora becomes frustrated when it becomes apparent that their conflicting work schedules and lifestyles make it seem highly unlikely that they could ever get together. So Nora disconnects and seeks a strange relationship with Arthur (John Magaro), the author of a novel called Gaffe and somewhat Charlie Kaufman-like, which may or may not reflect Nora’s perhaps significant affection for her film. The eternal glow of the mind without memories. But Song’s film doesn’t end there, and this is where the film enters her element: when, after 12 years of silence, Hae Sung decides to visit him, how will Nora deal with this interruption from the past?

Song handles this tension beautifully. Completely rejecting the cliché of a woman torn between two lovers, Past Lives sends Nora on a journey of self-discovery that takes her to interesting places. In the end, we learn that Nora “wants to do everything, wants to have everything,” and that she feels “so UNKorean” when she’s with Hae Sung, who always looks like a city mouse in Manhattan even though she’s from a big city himself. . But there is no cliffhanger as such; Song leads us to want what’s right for not only Nora but Hae Sung as well, and instead of a melodramatic Sofia’s choice stage we get reflective work through a complicated situation.

Somewhat distracting from the incredible chemistry between the two leads, Magaro gets in the way a bit in the later scenes, leading the film into rambling and slightly alienating conversations about artistic rivalry and East Village property prices. Which may be part of the point. But Past Lives he makes a quick recovery, and his riveting final scene will satisfy everyone who has been wondering since they last saw Richard Linklater’s Jesse and Celine and wondering where the next cinematic lightning bolt will come from.

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