“Past Lives.” Our lives before”: for her first film, Celine Song depicts the possibility of love

“Past Lives.” Our lives before”: for her first film, Celine Song depicts the possibility of love


Largely autobiographical, Past Lives. Our Lives Before , first feature film by playwright Celine Song, traveled to major festivals (Sundance, Berlin, Deauville) before reaching us and picking us up, without warning, from the first scene, in the intimacy standard and no less cozy in a chic New York bar. Two voiceovers coming from our place off-camera ask about the trio sitting on the other side of the counter, facing us.

What do their bodies suggest, the looks they exchange? Two are Asian, unlike the third; could it be a brother, a sister and a friend? Two tourists and their guide? And, why not, of a couple and the lover? In all this, one thing is obvious: something of the order of desire is at play, circulating, which holds the attention, making the scene captivating.

This will be the case throughout the film which, through a long flashback, then sets out to retrace, over more than twenty years, the journey of two of these three characters. That of Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Yoo Teo) whose meetings and successive separations will never cease to summon time which passes and sometimes suspends its flight. But who, tirelessly, shapes lives and loves.

Metronome precision

A simple story, as old as time, that Past Lives revisits with the precision of a metronome, the delicacy of a master watchmaker. The result is a film of rare subtlety, precious as a diamond. Like the feelings, expressed or unspeakable, which punctuate the story, pass through the characters, tear them apart and build them. The very subject of the film.

The flashback takes us far back, and far from New York, to a small South Korean town where Nora and Hae Sung, both 12 years old, return together, like every day, from school. Nora cries for not having finished first in the class, the place she usually occupies and which, this time, went to Hae Sung. Who tries to console her, as always when she is sad. These two are inseparable, to the point of considering, later, getting married.

Young Nora (Seung-ah Moon, right), in “Past Lives,” by Celine Song.

Alas, Nora’s parents decide to emigrate to Canada, separation cannot be avoided. Ambitious, the little girl sees in this departure the promise of a great future. While his young fiancé, faced with this tearing away, feels only sadness. The film, therefore, endeavors to follow the path of each person, passing from one continent to another, from one era to another, gaining momentum without ever losing sight of the intimate, thanks to a mastered art of ellipse and editing.

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