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  • Colin Fraser


FOUR AND A HALF STARS Over twenty years have passed since Nora left Hae Sung in the middle of a childhood crush.


Starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo

Seldom is a romantic drama of such relatively limited scope as extraordinary or affecting as Celine Song’s debut, PAST LIVES. It opens in a small New York bar and closes on the streets of Manhattan. Yet for all the implied urban glamour, it poses the ordinary, everyday question ‘what if’ and offers no clear answer.

Three people are sat in the quiet bar, observed by a disembodied voice. Two of them, a Korean man and woman, are quite animated. The third, a white male, is disconnected from their conversation, a hanger-on. Is he the woman’s partner, upset that he can’t engage? Or are they colleagues, him disinterested in their work matters? Or is there another scenario the voice over can’t discern?

Wind the clock back twenty odd years, Na Young and Hae Sung and are firm friends living in Seoul. They’re both competitive in their school work, they’re supportive of one another and as much as pre-teens can be, in love. But Na Young’s family are about to emigrate to Canada. Her mother wants to give the girl happy memories of her country before she leaves and sets up a chaperoned date with Hae Sung. They play and laugh in the park and then, she’s gone.

Twelve years later Na, living in New York, goes by the name of Nora. She’s an aspiring playwright and reconnects with Hae, still in Korea, through Facebook. They rekindle their friendship online, romantic sparks fly over late night conversations and many wordless video calls. But Hae can’t commit to visiting America and Nora has no interest in returning to Korea. Realising the futility of their long distance relationship (besides, she’s since met Arthur on a writer’s retreat), Nora suggests they no longer talk.

Forward another twelve years. Nora and Arthur are happily married and have moved from the suburbs to a tiny apartment in Manhattan. Modest success is coming their way, and the future is shaping up. Hae makes contact. He’s finally coming to America and wants to see Nora during the week he’s in New York. Nearly twenty five years have passed since they last saw one another, yet when they meet and play tourist in the city, romantic tension is palpable. However the quiet, impeccably mannered Hae Sung is not a home wrecker. Nora believes it, Hae believes it, Arthur mostly believes it. But do we?

PAST LIVES explores the idea of in-yeon, a concept that suggests when people meet, it means they’ve met before in a past life. The closer the coupling, the more meetings and past lives they’ve had, implying that Nora and Hae have been deeply connected, and may be again in a future life. But what does it mean for this roll of the dice? It’s a question that keeps broiling around beneath the placid surface of Song’s drama. While parts are in Korean, no subtitles are required to understand the body language of her central characters, performed with stunning restraint by Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro. They are endlessly and effortlessly sensational.

Finally, back in the bar, a scene unfolds with such tender awareness, so pregnant with unspoken emotion, that it hits like a bus. Any fear that preceding events might have been too slight for any meaningful ending are allayed. Then as we move to a heart-wrenching coda, PAST LIVES achieves the remarkable, a theatre silenced by understatement. Song knows that ‘what if’ can’t be answered in any meaningful way, that it doesn’t offer any kind of golden rom-com happy ending, yet that’s the path she insists we walk with her. And it’s an extraordinary one at that.


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