Jamie Skinner reviews Celine Song's latest film, Past Lives: Having emigrated from South Korea to Canada as a child Nora (Greta Lee) reunites with childhood friend Tae Sung (Teo Yoo) reminding each other of what, if anything, could have been.

Past Lives: Cert - 12, Run-time - 1 hour 46 minutes, Director - Celine Song

Past Lives is a deeply naturalistic piece of work. The closest it gets to fantasy is capturing the giddy elation of receiving a small, yet deeply hoped for, message. Having reconnected with childhood friend Tae Sung (Teo Yoo) after twelve years via Facebook, Nora (Greta Lee) has a new spring in her step. She doesn’t actually dance down the street but Lee and feature debut writer-director Celine Song make it feel as if she does.

The film charts the relationship between the pair at twelve year intervals. The ways in which their lives change amongst different cultures - Nora emigrates to Canada from South Korea as a child - leads to hesitancy and reluctance in their meetings. Friendly faces become ghostly reminders of the past. Not just a reminder of what, if anything, could have been, but a haunting call back to a chapter of life that may not be fully closed.

“He was this kid in my head, then this image on a laptop, now he’s a physical person” Nora explains to her American husband, Arthur (John Magaro) as they stand in their New York apartment years down the line. Culture and identity come more into play here as Nora explains that around others she feels Korean, yet when with Tae Sung she feels very American. So many of her conflicting feelings are hidden within, yet, much like Tae Sung, these leak through to the audience within their uncertain expressions.

Both lead performances bring out plenty of emotion with the subtle character details that they bring to life from Song’s screenplay. Heightened by her direction, particularly shots surrounding the central ideas of farewells and closing chapters. Throughout there are a number of shots which you simply want to pause just to relish in the details of even more. Yet, perhaps the most effective images come in a tracking shot towards the end of the film, conveying as much poignancy and thought as everything that has come beforehand.

Certainly a film which lingers in the mind long after the credits have rolled it’s also one with plenty to unpack in the moment, for both the characters and the audience. Although, the central duo appear at times reluctant to acknowledge what might clearly be in their minds. Often, what’s held back (and there’s a lot) is louder than the polite, yet awkwardly-tinged, pleasantries which are spoken.

Past Lives glides through its run-time, feeling under 90 minutes than anything closer to two hours, with plenty of excellently observed subtle dramas as part of its core themes. Finely portraying both hidden and visual feelings and emotions with great effect. The film builds upon itself, expanding its emotional core whilst managing to remain naturalistic, emotionally engaging and refined in its depictions.

Jamie Skinner, Four stars ****