Two minutes away, the Uber app promises at one point in “Past Lives.” And if you’re like me, you may find yourself — perhaps for the first time in your Uber-riding life — hoping that promise is a bald-faced lie.
Because you’ll want more minutes, many more, for the couple presumably about to be separated by that Uber, even though they’re simply staring at each other on the street, saying absolutely nothing.
This is but one small moment of playwright Celine Song’s gorgeous, achingly wistful feature debut. But it highlights her striking confidence as a filmmaker. Time and again, Song, who both writes and directs here, makes the unflashy, understated choice — and in so doing, darned near breaks our hearts, with a tale that feels universal yet rich in detail, urgent yet unrushed. And if, also like me, you suddenly feel tears forming, they may surprise you, precisely because nobody’s been trying to force them.
We begin with a trio chatting in a New York bar — a woman flanked by two men. We’re too far away to hear what they’re saying or understand how they’re connected, and we hear distant voices speculating: “Maybe they’re tourists, and he’s the tour guide?”
Flashback 24 years to Seoul, where Nora (then called Na Young) and close friend Hae Sung, both 12, are walking home from school. Nora, her hair in long braids, is crying because she lost first place on a school assignment to Hae Sung. (She’s an ambitious sort.) The friendship — too early for romance — is about to be sadly interrupted, because Nora’s family is moving to Canada.
Twelve years pass. Nora ( Greta Lee, terrific in a smart, restrained performance that echoes her director’s style) has now moved to New York as an aspiring playwright (yes, much of this story is autobiographical.) On a lark one day, she tries to look up figures from her past. Searching for Hae Sung, she learns he was recently looking for her, too.
They schedule a video chat — at first halting, but soon they’re chatting day and night. Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) is still living at home, common for young Koreans, and studying at university. He has plans to go to China. Nora is moving ahead with her own dreams (her goal has shifted from a Nobel to a Pulitzer.)
When the distance becomes too painful, Nora calls for a break. Not long after, she attends a writing residency and meets Arthur (John Magaro), a fellow writer. And 12 years pass again. The two live in Brooklyn and have been married seven years.
Suddenly, Nora hears from Hae Sung. He’s coming from Seoul and wants to see her. Their meeting in a city park is nothing like the rom-com encounter it could be in another film. Song knows that in real life, there’s often an inability to react quickly or cleverly or even at all, for awhile. The director lets awkward silences stand.
Over the next few days the couple gets to know each other. Not surprisingly, Arthur feels somewhat threatened. Late at night he quietly tells Nora that she dreams in Korean, a language and world he does not know. He wonders if he’s “the guy you leave in the story when your ex comes to take you away.”
And suddenly we’re back at that restaurant bar scene, and now we understand. The three characters try to navigate the unusual circumstances. They discuss what-ifs, and zoom in on a Korean concept of fate, explained by Nora earlier as the connection between two people that has been influenced or determined by connections in past lives — hence the film’s title.
Without giving away the ending, it’s worth noting that Song has drawn much from her own life — down to that bar scene, and a similar visit from a long-ago connection from Korea.
She raises a number of lessons here, but one seems to be that choices, which seem so limitless in our youth, have consequences, even (or most especially) when we’re not noticing. No one choice seems irreversible, perhaps, but eventually they coalesce into a life path.
But the playwright also tells us that versions of one life can co-exist. Nora notes at one point that even if her older New York version is different, the younger Korean version is still real, and still exists on some other plane.
“This is my life, I’m living it with you,” she tells Arthur early on, trying to reassure him (and perhaps herself.) But one of the beauties of this film is how it allows for such an expansive, generous view of what one life can actually be.
“Past Lives,” an A24 release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for some strong language. “ Running time: 106 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.