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Thread: PAST LIVES (Celine Song 2023)

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    PAST LIVES (Celine Song 2023)

    CELINE SONG: PAST LIVES (2023)


    GRETA LEE, TEO YOO IN PAST LIVES

    TRAILER

    What cannot be put back together

    Song's celebrated Sundance film about lost love is intense but restrained - a fundamentally Asian and traditional style of affect shown in relation to a western environment as one of the couple transfers to the West. The final sequence is terrible, crushing to two people who, despite long separation, seem to have an inextinguishable passion for one another, the more powerful for being so long repressed, and colored by a whole lost world They exchange long wordless looks so intense it feels like a D.H. Lawrence novel - which, then, makes this story not so Asian after all. And then the man's Uber comes, they embrace, and he goes off to Korea again, leaving her with her American Jewish husband in New York, in the East Village. Anthony Lane admires this film in his New Yorker review. But he compares it with Max Ophüls’s 1948 Letter from an Unknown Woman, with a similar design, that slays him every time, finding that Past Lives, "strikingly cautious, calm, and superfine," in so being "flirts with the timid."

    Indeed except for one sympathetic almost-sob I did not weep at the unfolding of Past Lives. I thought of Lee Chang-dong's Burning, (NYFF 2018), which also blends Korean and foreign elements, has a would-be writer and a would-be romance and ends unresolved, but is much more exciting, even thrilling. And yet Past Lives fascinates. Despite a design so neat it would seem to work regardless of what anybody says, there is much mystery about it, and longtime expatriates, especially Asian ones, may find deep feelings aroused, despite - or through - the 'timidity.'

    The focus of Past Lives is on love deferred and lives that helplessly diverge. It's highly structured, as it is implied Korean life is, compared to life chez nous. It's in three parts: set off by a detached, puzzle opening. This is a scene in an American club where unseen voices speculate about an Asian man and woman talking animatedly while a white man sits by, seeming both connected and alienated. Later we'll find out what the relationship of the trio is - the triangle at the heart of the film.

    Next, though, we go back 24 years. This is the first, sweet, origin story panel of the tale, when a boy and girl in Korea are in school together, age 12, and singularly drawn to each other, then are separated when the girl's family immigrates to Canada. The girl is Na Young (Seung-ah Moon). The boy is Hae Sung (Seung-min Yim). They walk home from school together: they're academic rivals - she cries when he beats her to first place on a class assignment. But more than that. Because they like being together, their parents arrange for them to go on a "play date" where they almost hold hands. Hae Sung gets ready for the big move and takes a new name, Nora Moon. When the two say goodbye there is much heartbreak in the stoicism of their gestures. They take two separate winding town paths uphill: Frost's two roads that diverge in a wood, that make all the difference.

    Though Nora cries all the time when she's Na Young, it's the restrained Hae Sung who doesn't get over this separation, ever. They should have been pals and rivals through school and college and university, married, spent their lives together: these thoughts sooner or later occur. Past Lives is about those who leave and those who stay. It's also about the one love that you never get over. For Hae Sung it is a love that grows.

    They don't speak to each other till the next panel of the triptych, 12 years later, when they find each other, rather by chance. It's very exciting for both of them. Both very much want to talk to each other, which they do on Skype, and continue doing, delighted. She has moved again, from Canada to America, and is on her own in New York, pursuing a life as a playwright (occupation of the filmmaker herself). Hae Yung (now played by Teo Yoo) is in school in Seoul. Nora (Greta Lee) is beautiful, smart, poised like a knife. He's a little blurry, but very warm and intense.

    This is tough material for the film to get through: talking to each other on laptop screens isn't a very exciting format. And it's all they get. Their interest in each other rekindles, but neither seems able at this moment to make the 13-hour trip between Seoul and New York that a meeting requires. Nora, as she is now, wants to call a temporary halt to this long-distance affair. She has come here to make her fame and fortune. As a 12-year-old Nora said she wanted to win a Nobel prize. Now she says she hopes for a Pulitzer. Later she'll settle, more to the point, for a Tony award. He'll tell her she's crazy, and this way, effortlessly, they evoke their pre-teen time. But now the point is, a long-distance romance, however appealing - but also remote, because she's been living in an Anglophone world for 12 years, admits she speaks Korean only to him and to her mother now - would exhaust too much of her energy, detract too far from her ambitious goals. So now they must stop, it's her will. And the hiatus lasts.

    Flip the deck and reshuffle and we come to: 12 years later. They have not spoken - again for 12 years. (This may seem sometimes too neat, 12, 12, and 12.) Again they find each other. This time he plans to come to New York. Again they're excited. He's an engineer. He has a girlfriend. But he has split with her. No--he has taken a break. As he pours down the soju with his drinking buddies, he pretends the trip is for R&R. The drinking buddies know otherwise, that it's to see the childhood love. He can't deny it. He only must tacitly admit it's become a little hopeless now. Nora is married, to an American, also a writer, Arthur (John Magaro). We've seen their romantically staged first meeting at a Montauk writing residency, where Nora woos Arthur with talk of a Korean concept of In-Yun, relationships reenforced by countless meetings in past lives. This In-Yun bit is external and hokey, but the couple must click: they've been together seven years. They live in a little apartment in the East Village.

    Well, Hae Sung comes, and it's intense. We look at him. He looks at himself. He has waited twenty-four years to see Nora in person again. It's intense mainly, from this male reviewer's point of view anyway, because of him. But the film makes it clear Nora is just as stirred. It's just that he is coming to her. Somehow we have been seeing her, but the full-body presence of Teo Yoo we have not seen till now, and his sheer present-ness is stunning.

    Greta Lee is the one who seems a bit fuzzy now, less sharp-edged, less sure. Teo Yoo is filmed to show his bulk and his physical beauty, his sleek skin, his shining hair. He's a sensitive Asian hunk. Arthur is drab by comparison. But he and Nora talk it out: their connection came easily and was expedient, but it wan't just laziness. They have a full sexual, intense, relaxed union. It's just that Arthur can't match the intensity of the nativeness, the Korean-ness of Hae Sung. And this is all a surprise to Arthur. It flabbergasts him. He just has to learn to live with it.

    *Song's triumph is the big trio scene, with Arthur silent, but there: the tableau observed by others from a distance at the film's opening in busy, orangeish colors, now filmed (and revealed) from inside, in darker tones.* But that is Hae Sung's second day. We have seen him in his dark hotel room; Lane calls it a "Whistlerian study in blue-gray." He and Nora go on a day's summer tourist outing, take the boat that goes by the Statue of Liberty.* This would make the film forgettable. But on the next day Hei Sung comes to meet Nora's husband. Arthur has been trying to learn Korean, but he's not fluent enough to have a conversation.* He tells Nora she talks in her sleep in Korean. She suggests that's why he is studying, to understand what she says in her sleep. But she says "It's probably just gibberish."

    Nora and Hae Sung have their most intense conversation in Korean with Arthur there, sitting at the bar, and we see this through Arthur's eyes - and his uncodomprehending ears, articulate and perceptive though he is. Interestingly, Teo Yoo is like Steven Yeun, a Korean actor who has lived long in the West (Yeun starred in the US immigrant drama Minari and costarred in the Korean-set Burning). Yoo was born and grew up in Germany. It may seem a foreign-trained actor is needed to play a Korean in a Western film. And yet when Nora describes Hae Sung to Arthur after his first day in New York she stresses how Korean he is in all aspects; and he doesn't speak English well at all. She says Hae Sung makes her feel very un-Korean when she's with him - and yet also he brings out her essential Korean-ness. Of course.

    All this is too complex to explain and too deep for tears - that final conversation with Arthur helplessly sitting by is the heart of this lovely film, its beauty that, through Arthur, we cannot understand it. Sometimes the dialogue is too explicit and clear, just as the cinematography by Steve McQueen Small Axe dp Shabier Kirchner is too by-the-book. Yet Past Lives is an exquisite, elegant object, a rich, assured debut in which Celine Song manages to touch on, if only momentarily, the deepest feelings of separation and loss. One of the year's best films.

    Past Lives, 105 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 21, 2023, also showing at the Berlinale, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, and other festivals. Limited US theatrical release (by A24) June 23, 2023. Screened for this review at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, Berkeley, California July 10, 2023. Metacritic rating: 94%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-12-2023 at 11:15 AM.

  2. #2
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    Opened Dec. 12, 2023 in Paris, AlloCiné press rating 4.0 (80%).

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