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Past Lives movie review: Oscar-tipped drama is original, wry and hauntingly tender

 (Jon Pack)
(Jon Pack)

Long tipped as an Oscar contender, Celine Song’s autobiographical indie drama more than lives up to the hype. The story of a woman born in South Korea, who can’t shake off her first crush, is original, wry and hauntingly tender.

Academy voters will almost certainly nominate this story of what happens to Na Young/Nora (Greta Lee) for Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress. But Oscars Schmoscars! That’s not why you should see it.

Age 12, budding playwright, Na Young, leaves Seoul for Canada. She tells her best-friend and sort-of-crush, Hae Sung, that the move is necessary because “Koreans don’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature”. Twelve years later, Nora – as she’s now known – is just as ambitious. Though now she wants a Pulitzer.

By chance, she discovers Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), is keen to get in touch. They start having cosy/fizzy Skype calls and plan to visit each other (he’s still in Seoul), only for Nora to pull back. Soon, she meets and marries New Yorker Arthur (John Magaro). Twelve years after that, Hae Sung tells Nora he’s coming to New York. A hopeful romantic, he believes their past and future lives are entwined; that they’re meant to be together. What if he’s right?

A gazillion movies chart the bitter-sweet agony caused by perfect connections that can’t be sustained (my own favourites: Brief Encounter, Annie Hall, Brooklyn). Past Lives shares the lo-fi intensity of those classics. What’s different about Song’s screenplay is Nora’s feelings towards Hae Sung. She’s fond of him. Sometimes she fancies him. But, as far as we can tell, he doesn’t make her heart pirouette (nor is she exactly hot and heavy for Arthur). Some viewers will find Nora cold. Or narcissistic. But Song complicates such concepts, allowing us to appreciate an earthy and flawed woman, who simply doesn’t fit the romantic mould.

Lee and Yoo are a scrummy match (both have eyes that pop with humour). As for Magaro’s woe-begone Arthur, he’s frequently neglected by Nora, but not by the film itself. We’re encouraged, at every turn, to empathise with him.

Past Lives shows how fruitful it can be to mine your own history. Like Aftersun’s Charlotte Wells, Song finds the political in the personal and avoids seeming indulgent or niche. The ending is massively affecting (this is a movie for and about cry-babies) because its themes are universal. If you’ve ever felt out of sync with those you love, you’ll get it.

Billie Eilish once sang “I’m in love with my Future”. Song, you suspect, is similarly smitten. Swoon over what this extraordinary newcomer has achieved, as she plots her next move.

In cinemas from 8th September

106 mins, cert 12A