The term “confident” is often used to describe a directorial style, and it applies especially well for newcomers like Celine Song, who just released her first feature length film this year, Past Lives. This splendid film is Song’s carefully crafted love story chronicling the relationship of two people separated by circumstance. “Confident debut,” indeed.
Every choice in Past Lives highlights the confidence of the filmmaker. The story, penned by Song (who is also a playwright), is not a simple one, being a distance-challenged love story set in South Korea, Canada, and Manhattan. Past Lives is filled with weighted silences, here deployed to communicate intimacy, emotional distance, hesitancy, excitement – a wide range of emotions that are given the space to shift and change as the characters themselves try to parse what they feel. The film focuses largely on three characters for the entire runtime, slowly fleshing out their relationships to one another. Song does not paint in broad strokes, but at every turn adds little details and subversions that lend a realistic complexity to these focal relationships.
The film never pigeonholes a character into a single emotion, or a single drive. Rather, each character is swirling with complex and often contradictory drives and emotions. This grace is extended to the audience, as the story never takes a stance or simplifies what is being portrayed. The result is a tapestry of discordant emotions that all add up to create a gorgeously realistic portrait of three modern people who are simply trying their best to do right by themselves and the people they love.
The script is elevated by the central performances, and by extension their direction. Emotion is not only communicated through words, but just as often through a lack of words. The energy and pace of dialogue in a scene are used to dig deeper into the psyche of the characters, beyond what they show on the surface. By not relying on dialogue, Song achieves filmic efficiency, communicating profound emotions in just a look that goes on a second too long.
The dialogue is well utilized, with each word layered with meanings. As each of the characters tries to conceal and parse the emotions of each encounter, the actors are doing a remarkable job of being restrained while hinting at deeper meaning through small gestures. This makes the movie feel incredibly intimate, as if we knew each of the characters personally, and were able to recognize their moods.
The ability to draw emotion from a quiet scene is not just reserved for the actors, since the cinematography speaks a language of its own. The shots are dynamic and packed with meaning. From intimate shot/reverse shots that make a conversation feel intimate despite characters being separated by oceans, to a panning shot that makes the characters feel farther apart than ever before, despite standing right next to each other. If the characters aren’t talking, the camera often is.
Visually Past Lives is stunning, thanks to cinematographer Shabier Kirchner. Each of the many locations the film visits manages to feel distinct and alive. The scenery is packed with little details that speak to the characters that inhabit them, grounding each scene in a feeling of lived-in realism. All of this is accompanied by a beautiful moody score that would have had me closing my eyes and simply listening if the shots weren’t so well composed.
This movie is almost as unconventional as it is restrained, trusting the audience to invest themselves in the relationships and characters without the comfort of a recognizable driving plot. Instead, the movie chooses to let quiet moments draw the audience in, showing the intimacy, hurt, and joy of a unique trio of realistic relationships. This investment and patience is paid off in full in a masterful final scene, building up all the emotions circulating throughout the film, and releasing them in a way that is both surprising and deeply moving. The result is one of the year’s true “must watch” movies.