Past Lives (M, 106 minutes)
This subtle, understated romantic drama involves three people who we first see having a drink together at a bar in New York. A voiceover playfully suggests that others are watching on, wondering what prompts the animated conversation and why one of the trio, the white male, looks uncomfortable and even a little glum. What's happening? Let's hazard a guess.
It's such a clever start for this cross-cultural story, bringing a past shared long ago in collision with the here and now, and packing an extraordinary punch in the final moments.
This is a first feature from Korean-American playwright Celine Song. If you look Song up on the internet, it's clear her film is in large measure autobiographical. It has the clarity and confidence that comes to us all when we tell our life story, and is perhaps cathartic for its writer-director too.
By way of explanation, we are transported by flashback to the time when two of these three people were 12-year-olds at school together in Seoul. Young Hae Sung was already showing signs of attachment that Seung-ah doesn't quite match, and anyway, her family is on the point of emigrating to Canada. Besides, she has already chosen her new name for the anglophone world. It will be Nora.
The contrast couldn't be greater than in the scenes juxtaposing them as young adults, connecting again on the internet. Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), a student of engineering, is doing his compulsory military service in South Korea while Nora (Greta Lee) is getting set up at a writer's retreat, a gorgeous cottage set in grassy meadows. She is at the point of meeting her American husband, Arthur (John Magaro), also a writer.
Years later, when Hae Sung and Nora connect again, he has arrived in New York, solely for the purpose of seeing her. The childhood sweethearts spend hours together, roaming the city, experiencing the tourist haunts, including the ferry around Manhattan, something that Arthur, many years a resident, still hasn't managed. Isn't it always the way?
There is nothing clandestine going on, but the reunion plays on the insecurities of both men when they eventually meet. Arthur, who is clearly a loving husband, wonders out loud how he, a Jewish guy who writes book, a denizen of East Village, could possibly be the answer to the immigration dream of Nora's family. Suspicion lurks that Nora married him for quick and uncomplicated access to a Green Card. Meeting with Hae Sung confirms his fears that this tall, dark, handsome stranger, masculine in the Korean way, is his rival.
Hae Sung, on the other hand, feels he hasn't yet achieved that much in his life. He still lives at home. It's so Korean, comments Nora. And because, as he says, he is ordinary and an only son, he is finding it hard to marry.
Finally, Nora asks Hae Sung the big question. They had previously connected over the internet on skype but why did he look for her now? Because he wanted to see her, he says, one more time. We learn that there was a recent failed relationship too.
I have to say that there isn't a lot to report here. None of these characters are particularly compelling and the dialogue is a bit banal, given the critical hype. But this is probably the point. It is the situation that they find themselves in, with its 'what if' universality, that is compelling.
That Nora and Arthur are writers doesn't turn them into interesting characters, but it does pave the way for a funny scene where they are returning to New York after visiting her family in Toronto. Without even seeing the face of the US immigration officer who poses them a few questions, we get the gist of the casual prejudice and scepticism they may have to face in their daily life as writers, and the everyday prejudice that Nora may face as an Asian American.
Past Lives could be simplicity itself, were it not for the fine performances and the inexpressively emotional few minutes of silence between Hae Sung and Nora as they stand together on the kerb, waiting for the Uber that will whisk him away to his old life in South Korea. That wait on the kerb is one of those ineffable moments. Straight to the heart.