Friday, June 30, 2023

Time After Time: PAST LIVES

Thirty-six is young enough to feel like a massive life change is still possible, but also old enough to have a lot of vivid “what ifs” that have closed off some possibilities entirely. I’m sure I’m not the first to draw a metaphor comparing living your life to catching a flight. If your childhood is the runway, and your twenties are takeoff, then your thirties have to be the point where you feel you’re at cruising altitude. You’re far enough along to relax into a routine, see the shape of the horizon, while still knowing you have a long way until you reach your final destination. What if? There’s still time. Here’s Past Lives, a wistful and fragile little movie borne aloft by those doubts and those “what ifs” as its 36-year-old characters turn inwards, and backwards, for just a few days. They’re in a blend of nostalgic reverie and deep contemplation that, together and apart, cause them to reflect on their lives’ routes so far, and the other paths that had to be foreclosed to get there.

It starts at the turn of the 21st century, where two 12-year-old South Korean classmates’ friendship is teetering on the edge of romantic feelings. They sit close in class. They talk on their slow walks home. Their moms arrange a date in the park. She cries after getting a lower grade on a test than she’d expected, and he calmly stands there, awkwardly, silently, supportive. It’s all very sweet and cute, a first blush of real, deep connection in a pre-adolescent way that arises out of affection and proximity. When her family immigrates to Canada before the next school year, they don’t see each other, they don’t speak, they don’t stay in touch. More than a decade passes. The movie’s main drama—softly spoken, precisely observed—happens in two following parts: a fleeting long-distance friendship, and a long-awaited reunion on the streets of New York City a decade after that. In their mid-thirties for the film’s present tense culmination, she (Greta Lee) is a married American, and he (Teo Yoo) has just broken up with his girlfriend back in Seoul. The emotional tension swells through the two time jumps ellipsis, empty narrative space we fill in with the context clues, and the nuanced performances in which whole decades well up through body language and eye movements, as every silence swells with the unspoken.

Though it has the raw material of overheated melodrama, the confident grace and simplicity of writer-director Celine Song’s debut feature carries off a poised empathy. It’s not building to the stuff of high drama, but of small realizations, shifts in thoughtful connection, self-knowledge, and lost potentials. It embodies the melancholy wonderings of a wandering mind, traveling back to those moments in life where another choice would’ve taken you an entirely different direction. This isn’t even a movie about regrets, per se. Her husband (John Magaro) is as well-adjusted and empathetic as you could ask. This allows for a movie about the headspace a reunion can generate—and Song’s sensitive writing and cozy filmic lensing allows for the characters to explore their complicated emotions kicked up by the grown person before them being simultaneously the tween they once knew, and a stranger they’ve never known. They see some lost part of themselves reflected back in a stranger’s eyes. The movie’s generous enough to play that out with compassionate contemplation, and the final emotional release is all the more potent for it.

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