Wednesday, June 14, 2023

A haunting look at roads not taken

 There are moments in many lives that can, in retrospect, be viewed as pivotal: relationships that didn’t blossom, loves that went unexpressed, and connections severed by geographical separations. 
 Such moments can prompt "what-if" thinking, the act of trying to imagine the nature of a life that didn’t happen from the perspective of one that did. 
  Nora (Greta Lee)  and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), the two main  characters in director Celine Song’s Past Lives, put their toes in "what-if" waters. They try to find each other after years of separation. That may sound like a romcom formula but life seldom evolves in formulaic ways and neither does Past Lives.
   Nora left Korea at the age of eight and moved to Toronto with her family. She grew up and relocated to New York City to pursue her ambitions as a playwright.
    Hae Sung remained in Korea, where he became an engineer. He didn’t marry but never abandoned the idea that he might reunite with the girl whose departure left him saddened and lonely.
    As Nora and Hae Sung approach adulthood, they make an on-line connection and begin regular conversations via the internet. Nora breaks off the talks when she's about to embark on a writer's residency in Montauk, Long Island. 
    Perhaps she doesn't want anything to interfere with her work or maybe she realizes that time and distance have created an unbridgeable gulf between herself and Hae Sung.
     During her residency, Nora meets Arthur (John Magaro), the writer who will become her husband. He'll become worried -- not in a crazy way -- that if Nora reconnects with Hae Sung, their marriage will dissolve.
    It takes 24 years for Hae Sung to visit New York in hopes of reuniting with Nora. Together, they ponder their lives and the meaning of lost connections. When they meet, you can see them searching each other's faces for traces of their younger selves.
    Nothing happens on the sly. There are no secrets here. Nora's husband understands that his wife needs to meet with an old friend.
    In the movie's best scene, Nora, Arthur, and Hae Sung are seated at a bar on Manhattan's lower Eastside. Initially, Nora translates for her husband but soon winds up having a revealing conversation with Hae Sung, which her husband can't understand. Arthur knows only rudimentary Korean -- and not much of that. Hae Sung's English is spotty at best.
    Song introduces speculation by the characters about the way connections are formed: Is it fate or perhaps encounters in previous lives that are recurring in the present? But Song isn't pushing an explanation. She's acknowledging the mystery of ties that are difficult to relinquish.
      Song has a delicate touch, so don't be surprised not to find volcanic emotional explosions or tidal waves of passion that conquer calm consideration. That doesn't mean the movie stirs no emotions.
    Grief, albeit perhaps gentle, inevitably accompanies the sadness of unsatisfied yearnings and roads not taken. Even if past and future lives are possible, we still must live them one at a time.  

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