One reason for the perceived crisis in screen romance is that most of our successful hooks and lines - those signals we deploy to get romance going, in movies as in real life - have already been seized upon, worked to death and worn thin. Yet the world seems unlikely ever to run out of what-ifs - those fragile contingencies and commonplace near-misses any half-sentient human occupying a seat in a cinema will have become aware of passing through this life. Right person, wrong time; right person, right time, wrong place. We may be more aware than any previous generation of the ships we pass in the night, given the elaborate sonar systems of social media; the ghosts and spectres that haunt us no longer fade away as they might once have done. All this provides the background to the Korean-American playwright Celine Song's feature debut Past Lives, which actually opens with a string of verbalised what-ifs - a couple observing the three main characters from across a toney New York bar, and wondering aloud what their status is - before firming its relationships up to some degree. The three are thirtysomething Na-jong, anglicised as Nora (Greta Lee), who migrated here with her family from Seoul when she was younger, leaving behind a lovelorn childhood playmate; Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), the playmate, with whom Nora has sporadically reconnected online in the intervening years; and Arthur (John Magaro), the beardy Jewish-American novelist Nora met at a writer's retreat and married in the meantime. One of the subjects that comes up in the trio's conversation - the topic that gives Song's film its title - is the Buddhist idea of in-yeon, the process by which reincarnated souls are reunited. Marriages, we learn, are the result of soulmates having rubbed up against one another over the course of 8,000 lifetimes. This sounds exhausting, to say the least, but it explains why people are so keen to sign up for Tinder.
As the many thousands of glowing-to-gushing words filed since the film's premiere in Sundance in January make clear, Past Lives has been designated one of this year's special ones - a film operating on a higher spiritual plain - and I see no reason to lodge a violently dissenting opinion. (I'm not looking to break anybody's heart here.) It is, unusually, a debut that makes an impression through sheer delicacy; at once featherlight and soul deep, it succeeds in making certain endeavours by Hirokazu Kore-eda, patron saint of tasteful middlebrow drama, seem lumpen and clumsy. Song's film is placid in a way that feels cleansing, and doubly so if you start to consider the narrative and emotional contrivance going on elsewhere in the contemporary cinema. In their place, this filmmaker offers the ambient pleasure of spending time in well-dressed rooms with people we warm to on some level - old friends and old souls, observed in the course of getting older and wiser still. Wherever her characters are, Song's camera is almost always in the right place. A break-up cues a gentle pan across to an open window, where we are consoled by the sight of the sun breaking through between two adjacent buildings. When Nora and Hae Sung reunite in person, they temporarily disappear into the greenery of a New York park, underlining the general idea this second-chance encounter might be the most natural thing in the world. And there's a neat, economical sketch aboard a subway train that finds Hae Sung fumbling his way through a text message he'll never send, dolefully spying a happy young pair of fellow travellers, and then exiting the frame, leaving us to study the lonely old sot in the seat next to him. (Call it The Three Ages of Man.) Song is also acutely sensitive in her handling of actors, especially Lee, a refugee from comedy (Sisters, Russian Doll), who glows with the assurance of knowing the two men either side of her - and a high percentage of the audience - must be falling head over heels for Nora.
Still: for much of Past Lives, I found myself not sobbing helplessly, but batting away a question that sometimes presents while watching lesser Kore-eda films (and even certain Ozu works, going further back in the same quietist lineage): is it possible for a film to be too nice for its own dramatic good? Song's film is light in many respects; it's lightest of all on earthly jeopardy. We quickly spy that these characters are possessed of the money and emotional resilience to absorb whatever this lifetime might throw at them; and while Song's fixated on her characters as spotless spirits, I don't think she quite makes them come alive as compelling flesh-and-blood. This is a very odd film to have been arrived at by a playwright: the dialogue favours a flavourless naturalism, the emotional pith tamped way down below a toplayer of fondly banal small talk and sporadic sociological signifiers. The only line I can recall to quote is the "whoa!" Nora and Hae Sung toss back and forth as the universe reunites them another time. These are undeniably nice souls, but they're not terribly complex or troubled ones - and, in its airiness, Song's camera has a tendency to drift past the few flickers of human behaviour that strike the eye as idiosyncratic or characterful. Having delivered Nora to this fork in the road, her family recede into the background; Arthur appears to have written a novel called Boner, a state of affairs that almost certainly deserves further elaboration. Only partly engaged, my mind drifted to reconsider the way Richard Linklater, in the Before films that remain the gold standard for cinematic what-ifs, allowed Jesse and Céline to do and say variably shitty things, to rub more vigorously against one another in the way real lovers do and Song's lovers don't. That may only be possible when your characters have two feet lodged in the real world, and aren't merely floating amiably around each other like a child's pristine soap bubbles. Past Lives retains a powerful central concept - powerful enough to have squeezed more tears from hardened critics than any other film released so far in 2023. It's just that the concept feels vastly more powerful and affecting than the elegantly composed yet strangely colourless stick figures Song invites us to fill in with our own experiences. It struck me that the couple we hear sitting across the bar from Nora and her two boys were having a far livelier conversation, whatever state their in-yeon was in.
Past Lives is now showing in selected cinemas.