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PAST LIVES

Past Lives Will Break Your Heart and Make it Whole Again

Celine Song’s sublime debut film discovers grace in that age old question, what if?

Directed by Celine Song

by Maggie McPhee

In-yun. A Korean term derived from buddhism describing the fated paths that entwine two people, throughout their past and future lives. If your knee brushes a stranger on the subway, that’s in-yun. When you marry your soulmate, it’s said to be the result of 8000 layers of in-yun accumulated over 8000 lifetimes. Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), two childhood sweethearts wrested apart by Nora’s immigration to North America, seem to be just one lifetime shy of that 8000 mark.

Director Celine Song showcases her genius by crafting love from its absence. By finding life in loss. As Nora’s mother says to a friend before their departure, “if you leave something behind you gain something too”. Nora and Hea Sung’s love for one another, though deferred, overflows with the intensity of aeons of history. Their past lives sustain them in their thirst they cannot yet quench. 

These layers of lifetimes enrich every scene. Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography captures light at its most luminous, like William Eggleston photographs brought to life. Imperfect reflections, in windows, in water, refract glimpses of other worlds, coexisting with ours. 

The film’s earthtones, its blues, greens, greys, and browns, turn imagery into ecosystem, making even New York City look as if it was carved from minerals. Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear’s score—a standout in the annals of film music—infuses the soundscape with strings like rippling waves and piano like constellations. This team folds the universe into 106 minutes. Though you may despair over Nora and Hae Sung’s missed connection, the feeling that remains after the credits roll is one of dumb-struck gratitude at the impossibility of life itself. 

Past Lives is playing in select cinemas in Toronto and opens in theatres in Vancouver and Montreal Friday June 16