[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
When childhood sweethearts Na Young and Hae Sung first part ways at the beginning of Celine Song’s achingly beautiful Past Lives, they literally follow diverging paths—the former climbing up a set of steep steps, the latter descending a paved road downhill. It’s a straightforward visual metaphor, but it’s no less evocative for its elegant simplicity. Indeed, as the film progresses, physical distance becomes the central symbol around which the narrative revolves, representing the comparatively abstract obstacles—conflicting priorities, mutually exclusive ambitions, cultural differences—that separate the characters.
When our protagonists reconnect over the internet twelve years after the prologue, for example, their communication is restricted to emails, instant messages, and FaceTime conversations. Although their chemistry is undeniable, the miles between them are equally insurmountable; the computer screen proves to be an impenetrable barrier, and their brief online relationship ultimately withers and dies. When they finally reunite in person, on the other hand, they constantly occupy the same space; the framing is intimate, sensual. The camera essentially merges them into a single entity; the world surrounding them might as well not exist.
Unfortunately for Hae Sung, Na Young—who now prefers to go by her American name, Nora—has already accepted that the romantic spark they once shared was merely a missed opportunity. She’s happily married, refusing to succumb to the temptation of what might have been. Perhaps they'll resolve their unfulfilled longing in their next reincarnation…
While this subject matter sounds overwrought on paper, the movie studiously avoids the shallow melodrama typically associated with its genre; its charms are far more subtle, seductive, and emotionally honest. As thematically rich as it is stylistically spare, Past Lives ranks among the finest love stories ever committed to (digital) celluloid; I look forward to revisiting it and breaking my heart all over again.