“Past Lives” makes its Oscar presence real

Past Lives (Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro) – As Past Lives opens, we are presented with three adults, two Asian and one white, sitting at a bar in current time while we hear the dialogue of a couple sitting nearby as they speculate about the trio.

We immediately flash back 24 years to two young Korean pre-teens, Na Young and Hae Sung, talking in the streets of a Korean town. Typical 12-year-old kids, they are inseparable, sharing their innocent lives. They’re both excellent students. She is determined but a “crybaby”; he’s quieter and reassuring. They are smitten, and their parents agree to let the kids go on “a date.”

But her family moves away, and the kids lose touch. Fast-forward 12 years. He’s a student in Seoul; she is a writer using the name Nora in New York. He decides to try to find out what happened to her, eventually finding her on social media. They connect via video chat. They flirt; they share; but they don’t get together. Fast forward another 12 years. Now we’re in real time.

What follows is a wonderful, heartrending story about love, imagination, destiny, missed opportunity, moving on, seeking your dreams, and much more. Relative newcomer Celine Song, whose only previous major credit was as a writer in the fantasy series The Wheel of Time, has crafted a deeply personal, autobiographical story as both writer and director. Exceptionally written in a script nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Past Lives presents a premise that many people can identify with. Essentially, she asks: “What if you got together with your childhood sweetheart 25 years later?”

The stars, Greta Lee (best known for The Morning Show) and Teo Yoo (Leto, Decision to Leave), play Nora and Hae Sung as adults. Their chemistry is almost exclusively expressed by their eye contact, the pauses in their dialogue, and her sensitivity and his melancholy. Their performances are unexpectedly well choreographed. For those agonizing over Margot Robbie’s Best Actress snub, you should also wonder how the Academy passed over Lee.

Nora’s husband, Arthur, is clearly the third wheel. He deeply loves Nora and is understandably worried when Hae Sung decides to visit. As played by John Magaro (The Big Short), Arthur is insecure and feels somewhat unworthy of Nora. The arc of his uncomfortable relationship with Hae Sung is brilliantly written by Song and played by Yoo and Magaro. This story creates a triangle with round edges.

It is hard not to be captivated by this film. It is the definition of a “little film” – low budget, minimalist, and well-acted. It is also slow, never detouring into faster pace. But at one-hour-45-minutes, it is not dull. It’s a romance, not a romantic comedy. It’s a journey of maturation and self-discovery filled with human emotion, heartbreak, and self-actualization. No wonder that Sundance and then the Academy took notice.

The film is presented partly in Korean with some English. It is the best case for the Academy’s decision several years ago to expand the Best Picture category to allow up to 10 nominees.

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