Past Lives is a debut feature from Celine Song that belies its newcomer status. Song is a playwright, and Past Lives unfurls in a carefully constructed manner that always feels real. There are no missteps in the film.
Song worked closely with her primary actors to get believable performances from them. Greta Lee (Russian Doll) is the Song stand-in as a playwright, Nora, who was born in Korea, Teo Yoo is the Korean man, Hae Sung, who was her childhood friend, and John Magaro is her husband, Arthur. Song and the actors do great things with their use of language. Nora is bilingual, and her Korean reflects the fact that she spoke it until she was 12 but has become rusty over the years. Teo Yeo speaks fluent English in real life, but here, he struggles to get even brief amenities across, while Arthur knows about as much Korean as the Hae Sung knows English. When the three of them are together, the woman is the translator/conduit for the communication.
Past Lives has three sections, one from the Korean childhood, one twelve years later (when Lee takes over the role of Nora), and a third twelve years after that, when the three meet in New York City. The film (and its title) grows out of the Korean concept of In-Yun, that assumes if you meet someone, you have also met in past lives. In fact, when Hae Sung comes to New York, he is a part of Nora's past ... he knows things about her that Arthur will never know. Again, Song is very careful ... nothing about the relationships of the three people is completely predictable, but the ending feels like it had been obvious all along.
Comparisons have been made to Richard Linklater's Before trilogy, where seven years passes between each film in the series. Song fits all 24 years into one film, but the seemingly-casual presentation is reminiscent of Linklater. The films are more different than similar, though, because the main characters in the works are unique.
Past Lives is a good movie that improves once you think back on it.