Lack of romantic chemistry keeps Past Lives from flying high
Many people have wondered about what might have been with someone in their past, and in the age of social media, it’s been easier than ever to reconnect with that person, even if they live far away. That concept of missed opportunities is at the center of the new film Past Lives.
Written and directed by Celine Song, the film shows the relationship of Ha Young, aka Nora (Greta Lee), and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) at three different points in their lives. They are first introduced as 12-year-old friends in Korea, competing academically and perhaps crushing on each other. They are soon separated, though, when Nora and her family move to Canada.
Twelve years later, they meet again thanks to Facebook, starting a dialogue over Skype that lasts multiple weeks. Twelve more years pass before they are able to actually meet in person, by which time Nora, a writer, has married a fellow creative, Arthur (John Magaro). With Hae Sung barely speaking English and Arthur speaking only a bit of Korean, the reunion is awkward and then some.
The film can best be compared to the Before… series, although it doesn’t have nearly the romance that those classic Richard Linklater films do. The will-they/should-they push-and-pull of their bond is at the heart of the entire film, with the Korean concept of “in yeon,” which essentially deals in destiny, invoked on multiple occasions. Song does her level best to imbue the conversations between Nora and Hae Sung with a lot of meaning.
The only issue is that those chats are often disjointed and stilted. The scenes with them as children contain, as you might expect, mostly surface-level observations, but they also give the pair the most face-to-face time of the whole movie. The Skype conversations and ones with either Arthur present or looming psychologically over them fail to be fully engaging, with both Nora and Hae Sung holding back more often than not.
There are clearly good reasons for them to do so, with the barrier of the video calls or Nora’s marriage standing in their way. But any good romance, even one that never really was, needs to impart those feelings to the audience, and their scenes together never reach that necessary level. Nora’s scenes with Arthur are also less than rousing, leaving the film with a curious lack of chemistry on all sides.
Even though the connection between their characters doesn’t develop into something swoon-worthy, both Lee and Yoo give interesting performances. Nora is more sophisticated, giving Lee something extra to reach for in her scenes. Hae Sung seems stuck in time, drinking with the same buddies and living with his parents, and Yoo’s performance matches this repressed nature. Magaro is capable of much more than this particular role gives him.
The style of filmmaking and the generally good acting keeps Past Lives watchable even as its central story doesn’t have the intended impact. Great romances exist in all sorts of different forms, but the one presented here is not especially memorable.
Past Lives opens in theaters on June 23.