These scenes of Nora and Hae Sung reconnecting are pleasant, partly because Lee and Yoo are both nice to spend time with. But as the days give way to one night after another, this interlude can also feel drifty and even a little innocuous, almost like filler. That’s partly because although Yoo is awfully nice to look at, and while Song continues to add in details about Hae Sung’s life in South Korea, the character never takes deep root in the story the way that Nora does. For much of it, he is effectively a ghostly figure, a beautiful specter on a laptop screen whose open face hides very little, including Hae Sung’s vulnerability and yearning.
All this feels as specific, intentional and meaningful as the sight of different lovers embracing all around Nora and Hae Sung when, another 12 years later, they finally reconnect in person in New York. By then, each has settled into their respective lives, have separate histories, have made different memories. They have distinct personalities and ways of taking up space, and each has had a serious relationship, Nora’s with her husband, Arthur (John Magaro, wonderful). Like Hae Sung, Arthur has a sweet, transparent face that hides little, including the hurt that Nora sometimes causes him, one difference being that he actually lives with her.
It’s important to Song’s overall design that one of the most crucial and extended sequences in “Past Lives” takes place not long after Nora breaks off with Hae Sung when they’re young adults. She’s rocked by their encounter, but she is soon en route to a writers retreat, an emblem of the horizons first glimpsed in her girlhood. Here, for the only time in the movie, Song lingers over a physical space, in this case a handsome, sunlit country house, a home. Nora lingers too in these rooms, and shortly after she settles in, another writer — Arthur — follows. Song stages and shoots his arrival from Nora’s room, the camera pointing through the open window as she lies asleep in her bed. She misses Arthur’s entrance, but soon after, Nora emerges from her room, awake in a present that — for the first time — feels like the future.
Rated PG-13. In English and Korean, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. In theaters.