While it is first and foremost a love story, “Past Lives” ventures beyond romantic yearning and burning questions. For Song, it’s also the chance to express feelings about the immigrant experience. Before leaving her home country, Nora’s mom justifies the couple’s choice to move the family abroad: “If you leave something behind, you gain something, too.” It’s a sentiment echoed through Nora’s life as her experiences lead her to a career in New York City and married life with a kindhearted writer named Arthur (John Magaro). But it’s a departure from the world she once knew as a child, and she confesses that she rarely even speaks Korean these days. When filling in her husband on meeting her girlhood crush, Nora confesses, “I feel so not Korean when I’m with him,” bringing up what sounds like insecurity about her own relationship with her culture.
Song makes Nora and Hae Sung’s mutual background an integral part of “Past Lives,” like a secondary connection beyond their personal interests. He represents the life not lived because she moved away—that something left behind for something else to be gained. Their shared language is something her American husband can’t keep up with, functionally giving them a private conversation even when he’s at a bar with them. But sharing something doesn’t mean they share the same feelings, as seen in the movie’s running motif of In-Yun, the encounters in past lives that can influence your connections in the present. It’s something Nora laughs off with Arthur during their first meeting at a writers’ retreat but that Hae Sung takes seriously when reflecting on his long-delayed visit to New York. They are, as the movie literally depicts, on two different paths. If at heart, they’re still the kids who first locked eyes with each other.
With much of the film focused on Nora and Hae Sung, Lee and Yoo step up to the challenge with a lived-in sense of ease and grace. Their characters’ excitement to talk to one another is natural; their meandering conversations feel real. How Lee and Yoo look at each other creates the impression of a long backstory without so much as uttering a word. Their faces show their characters’ restrained emotions just under the surface of a polite smile, but just one heavy sigh is enough to break the tears out to mourn the love that was never meant to be, the life that was never theirs, and a childhood that grows more distant with the years.