'Past Lives' Is Already the Best Movie of the Year

'Past Lives' Is Already the Best Movie of the Year

Past Lives, writer-director Celine Song's debut feature, opens with a guessing game: There are three people sitting at a bar, drinking in the wee hours. We're observing the trio from a distance, unable to hear what they're saying. Folks off-frame are making up possible back stories. The two Koreans are tourists, one of them says, and the white guy sitting to their left is their guide. No, the other replies, the lady and the white guy are a couple, and the Korean gent is their old friend. The camera creeps toward the woman sitting between these men, as the voices keep lobbying alt-histories back and forth. The woman -- her name is Nora Moon -- finally looks at the camera and gives us a Mona Lisa smile. She knows the answer, but she's not telling. Not yet.

Once upon a time in Seoul, two kids -- Na Young (Seung-ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung-min Yim) -- were the best of friends. Na's family is immigrating to Canada, however, so whatever mutual childhood crush they harbored for each other is cut short. Twelve years later, Na now goes by the Westernized name Nora (Greta Lee) and lives in New York; Hae (Decision to Leave's Teo Yoo) is finishing up his mandatory military service back home. An impromptu social-media message leads to the two reconnecting online, which turns into one endless FaceTime relationship that keeps threatening to get deeper, more intense. It's too much for Nora, what with the distance and the distraction from her burgeoning writing career. Communication stops. Life goes on.

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A playwright by trade, Song has a talent for letting things be left unsaid, and letting characters express themselves through unfinished sentences, casual asides, and glances; every hesitation and pause suggest short stories unto themselves. You can see this middle section working as a one-act onstage, even with the intimacy of a rekindled puppy-love spark being played out on computer screens. There's such a pitch-perfect, oft-kilter rhythm to all of this, not to mention the joy of watching two people slowly fall for each other a second time -- especially when Grizzly Bear members Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen's score lays the swooning string section over everything just right. Beware of that romantic glow you feel, however. It's about to get complicated.

Song isn't just flexing her chops as a dramatist here, she's mining autobiographical elements as well. (She's said that the opening scene at the bar is straight outta real life.) Yet even if she wasn't pulling from her own experiences, Past Lives is one of those films that feels achingly personal -- it's tapping into the universal feeling of "what if." What if I'd taken that road, instead of this one? What if I said something instead of staying silent? What if I'd gone back? What if I'd never left?

None of this comes across like dorm-room-sesh chinstroking, because Song is too strong a writer to get didactic and her actors are too good at making this dilemma feel not just urgent but alive. Teo lends a feeling of woundedness to his once and possible future suitor (he makes "I didn't know that liking your husband would hurt this much" sound both surprising and impossibly sorrowful), and it's to both Magaro and the film's credit that his third-wheel spouse is neither saintly nor a villain. Jean Renoir once said that everyone has their reasons, and by the time we go back to that bar scene late in the third act, we know all about that trio's reasons, not to mention their relationships, with a sense of bruised, bittersweet clarity.



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In the end, it takes a lot to laugh, and an Uber to cry. Past Lives exits on one of the most devastating one-two punches to ever grace a tragedy, in the form of dual tracking shots interrupted by a telling flashback snippet. What has happened or will happen to Nora and Hae in some other life is anyone's guess. This life is what they've got to deal with. And while fate seems to have dealt them their hand, it's also delivered something indelible to us: A movie that liberates your tears and makes you fall in love with it. It is almost assuredly predestined to be the single best movie you see this year.