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"Part Lives" Review

 Tonight the Oscars Death March teed up what can be described as the Obligatory Asian Movie - up for Best Picture and Original Screenplay - Past Lives, a melancholic thwarted romance story for people who want to end up feeling worse than the characters themselves.

 It opens with an unseen couple observing a trio at a bar late one night consisting of an Asian man (Teo Yoo), an Asian woman (Greta Lee), and a white man (John Magaro). Are the woman and the white man a couple and who is the Asian man? Are the Asians together and who is the white guy? It ends with the woman looking into the camera from the distance.

Then a title card pops up - "24 Years Earlier" - and we're introduced to Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) and Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) the 12-year-old versions of the couple we saw in their native South Korea. They are classmates and Hae Sung is teasing her for doing better in their class grades as she's usually the top student. They like each other and their parents take them on a play date to the park, but there's little future for them because Na Young's family is emigrating to Canada for unspecified reasons.

 Then we're told "12 Years Pass" and Na Young has changed her name to Nora Moon and lives in New York City pursuing her dreams of being a writer. One day while on the phone with her mother she's looking up random people from her past and decides to look up Hae Sung and discovers he had posted on her father's Facebook page (her father is a filmmaker) that he was looking for her, made difficult due to her name change.

She sends him a Facebook friend request and they begin to have a series of Skype calls talking about nothing in particular, mostly what they're doing in their work lives. They talk about getting together sometime, but various commitments and the whole being on the opposite side of the world thing would make any such reunion something that would take 12-18 months to arrange. Abruptly, she announces that she wants to stop the calls because she's finding herself spending more time looking up flights to Korea than focusing on her goals. She says it won't be a long break, but we kinda know better.

She then goes to a writer's retreat on Montauk and meets Arthur, the third man from the opening scene, and they get very cozy. Meanwhile, Sung has gone to Shanghai for a Mandarin language program and meets someone. Then we're told another dozen years have passed and Sung is coming to NYC to visit Nora, who is now married to Arthur. (Ruh-roh.) He's a published author and she is having a production of one of her plays mounted, so things are going pretty well. Or are they?

 When they reunite, Nora can tell that Sung came more to see her than the sights of NYC. He has recently broken up with his girlfriend and feels his life is too ordinary to get someone to marry him despite being a handsome fellow. Nora goes on about the concept of in-yun, a Buddhist concept that every encounter between people no matter how incidental, like brushing past someone in a crowded room, is a connection which carries from our past lives to future incarnations and it takes 8000 layers of in-yun for two people to be together. Uh-huh.

Naturally, Arthur begins to feel a little threatened by this guy from his wife's past. Did they get together too quickly, shacking up to save on NYC rents, getting married because she needed a green card? She reassures him that she loves him, but will that be enough to hold off destiny?

OK, to be fair I'm wildly overselling the stakes here because Past Lives is (according to my missus whose seen more of these types of movies) like the romantic dramas by Wong Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love, 2046) or The Age of Innocence (which I saw when it came out) - feel bad romances where lovers never get together because it would be The Wrong Thing To Do because reasons and stuff. You intellectually understand why they're kept apart while cursing how you don't get a happy ending.

But my problem with Past Lives is that its entire premise is founding on a case of puppy love between a pair of pre-pubescent kids that reconstitutes itself into a crippling obsession on his part and I'm not quite sure what her angle is based on what we're given. Perhaps I'm undercounting the importance of the in-yun factor to Korean culture, but it seems more like a coping mechanism for dissatisfaction with one's life. "If only me and so-and-so had brushed past each other 8000 times in past lives so we could be together now" is just an exotic take on wishing you had handled your high school sweetheart relationship more maturely.

Are we supposed to root for Nora and Sung to finally achieve their romantic destiny after 24 years and some Skype sessions a decade earlier? Sorry, Arthur, but you were just Mr. Right Now - what they have is REAL LOVE because 8000 layers of Korean mythic stuff. Due to the sketchy nature of the narrative and massive time jumps which the viewer doesn't feel because for us those 12 year breaks occur in 10 seconds so we're still feeling what we felt 10 seconds ago, not what the ill-fated non-lovers have felt (or not) for the ensuing 12 years.

There's a subtle detail in how Nora's ambitions taper down as she grows older. When preparing to leave her homeland, she says that she has to move because you can't win a Nobel Prize for Literature in Korea. When they video call in their early-20s, her goal is now to win a Pulitzer Prize. But when they finally meet her prize is a Tony Award as a playwright. It's as if the more she accomplishes, the smaller her dreams get. Is this meant to be another admission that life's refusal to just serve up your dreams means you just lower your sight or is it a commentary that Hae Sung has never moved past his unattainable childish goal?

Writer-director Celine Song has made a semi-autobiographical debut film - she is originally South Korean, but emigrated to Canada, then went to Columbia University in NYC for a MFA in playwriting in 2014 - and while it's too slight & unsatisfying for my tastes, what nags more is how Past Lives, which was one of those "Sundance hits" feels like a beneficiary of the Academy Awards need to fetishize "diversity" and their need to fill a quota of non-American, non-male, non-white filmmakers.

First it was Parasite (which I liked) winning Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay AND International Feature (formerly Foreign Language); then it was Chloe Zhao winning Best Director for the Best Picture-winning Nomadland (it was OK, but should've been a documentary); then Drive My Car winning Best International Feature and nominated for Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay, the Academy just loves slow, bordering on tedious Asian films - Drive My Car was three hours long and if I hadn't been able to speed watch it in just two hours, I would've given up - and Past Lives fits the bill, though thankfully it only spends 1h 45m going nowhere.

As far as the performances, I would've nominated Lee over Sandra Huller or Lily Gladstone as her performance is enigmatic. That there's any doubt as to how this story will go it's because she imbues Nora with an inner life that I don't think Song really put on the page for her. Yoo is less successful because his character is a one-note mopey puppy dog pining for this girl from so long ago. Song gives us scenes of him drinking with his buddies, but we never see his relationship(s?) and thus he seems to only exist to want Nora. Magaro draws the shortest straw as Arthur only exists to be a third wheel wondering if his wife is going to dash on their marriage for some childhood friend like he's Bill Pullman, who was that guy in so many 1990's romance films; the guy whose only flaw was not being exciting enough compared to the guy Sandra Bullock really has the hots for.

While discussing the movie, the missus suggested that perhaps the kids should've been older in the beginning, but my counterpoint was that if they had been hot and horny teens who'd lost their virginity to each other, for instance, then that would establish a more understandable basis for longing whereas by having it founded on what was really nothing but puppy love made the spiritual angle more relevant while also making it seem all the sillier that this is supposed to really matter. (I heckled as one of Sung's pals, "Bro, you held hands when you were KIDS and you're still hung up on the bitch? You're 36 and have a career now. Move on!" I am not a romantic man.) 

If you're a fan of deliberately unsatisfying stories of doomed non-romance, you may enjoy Past Lives despite all my kicking at its shins. But even on its modest merits, it's yet another "not a Best Picture" film which sadly seems to account for so much of what gets nominated these days.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

The trailer makes it look much more love triangle contentious than the actual film & downplays just how much subtitle-reading you'll be doing, which is about 80% of the film.


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