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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: The nuanced triumph of 'Past Lives'

Screen Grabs: The nuanced triumph of ‘Past Lives’

Plus: Plus: A journey over the rainbow with 'Lynch/Oz,' surreal Bohemian '70s hijinks in Dalíland. New movies!

Simplicity rarely reaps rewards as nuanced as in Past Lives, Canadian playwright Celine Song’s directorial feature. Its premise is quaint, almost banal: Childhood sweethearts are separated by geography, then reunite many years later to find their old feelings never really dissipated. It’s the stuff of a bazillion formulaic Lifetime romances, but here it never succumbs to cliche—instead enlarging to encompass how all life is a matter of missed chances, reroutings, endings happy or otherwise that don’t erase the pull of what might have been.

Song emigrated from South Korea to Toronto with her family at age 12, her aspirations as a writer eventually turning towards theater. That happens to also be the trajectory of the film’s Na Young (initially played by Seung-ah Moon), who at age 12 changes her name to Nora in preparation for a new life in the English-speaking world. Already ambitious like her artist parents, she’s less jarred by that leap than most kids would be, though part of her still pines for Hae Sun (Seung-min Yim)—the classmate she’d competed with for academic honors, and with whom she had a friendship that in other circumstances might have ultimately turned into life partnership.

But six thousand miles or so is a daunting gap to bridge at that age. So the two completely lose touch until a dozen years later, when both are just starting that early adulthood transition from studies to a career. Their renewed emotional connection, albeit limited to Skype, is immediate. Still, neither is in a position to visit the other—in Seoul, where Hae Sung (now played by Teo Yoo) remains, or NYC where Nora (Greta Lee) now lives—for some time to come. Eventually the frustrations of a very long-distance quasi-romance seem more trouble than they’re worth.

Ergo Past Lives’ third act takes place yet another 12 years later, when the two finally do meet again. In a way, they’ve remained a principal force in each other’s lives. But those lives have also moved on. They are no longer the people they were a quarter-century ago, and Nora is even happily married, to fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro from First Cow).

Apparently also based on a real-life experience of the writer-director’s, this momentary triangle is handled like everything else here, as reasonably sophisticated adults do. Arthur is a fully developed character in his own right, one who’s courteous and curious towards his “rival” even as the visit stirs his own insecurities. While not at all fantastical, Past Lives plays with the Korean notion of In-yun, a connection between beings that can span millennia, determining the dynamic shifts between two people in successive lives. They may mean one thing or another to each other in different incarnations, but that elemental tie is always there.

This movie’s depth and poignancy comes not from any stock sentimentality over “the one that got away,” but rather from the awareness that fate’s decreed adult Nora and Hae Sung are clearly not meant to be together. Yet something tugs at them anyway, like the phantom pain of a missing limb.

Most films by playwrights are predictably very dialogue-driven. Song has the wisdom to take a very different approach in this medium. There are some extensive, potent verbal exchanges late in the game. But this is mostly a highly evolved mood piece focused on what is not said, on meaningful looks, on cityscapes and visual details that evoke the appeal of places without lending them a false touristy gloss.

The poetic lyricism Song layers in with major assists from cinematographer Shabier Kirchner and editor Keith Fraase never seems like mere filigree. It’s the cinematic language that helps a story which seems slight on the surface attain considerable substance. All the actors are excellent, though while Lee’s flintier character strikes more conspicuous sparks, and Magaro communicates understanding vulnerability, it was Yoo who bowled me over—his performance is a master class in restraint heightening impact. When Nora feels herself quivering and pulled like a divining rod in his presence, we completely understand: Hae Sung is a deep well anyone might want to drown in.

A24 opens Past Lives in Bay Area theaters this Fri/9. Also arriving this weekend:


Song’s almost-lovers pine for a “home” they once found in each other. A more literal-minded variation on that quest, of course, is that of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz—blown out of Kansas, she endures various wonders and perils trying to get back. The 1939 MGM filmversion (while not strictly faithful to Frank L. Baum) fired up the emotions and imaginations of young viewers over generations, among them apparently the creator of such sinister adult quasi-fairy tales as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and the “Twin Peaks” series.

David Lynch is not an active participant in this latest filmic essay from Swiss documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe, who has almost exclusively made movies about other movies (like 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene). But he is heard in an archival interview saying “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about The Wizard of Oz.”

The Judy Garland classic offers one widely-familiar distillation of the universal hero’s journey as defined by Joseph Campbell. I’m not sure it required a nearly two-hour movie to draw parallels between that particular archetype and Lynch’s screen oeuvre, however blatant as the connections might sometimes be. (A hallucinated “good witch” even materializes in a floating bubble a la Glinda in Wild at Heart.)

Nonetheless, Lynch/Oz is enjoyable, even if its ideas aren’t ultimately all that revealing. Its six chaptered segments offer different perspectives on the chosen thesis by one film critic (Amy Nicholson) and several filmmakers: Rodney Ascher (who made a considerably more fascinating fan-pic documentary in Room 237, about Kubrick’s The Shining), John Waters (of Pink Flamingos et al.), Karyn Kusama (Girlfight, Jennifer’s Body), Justin Benson AND Aaron Moorhead (The Endless) and David Lowery (The Green Knight).

Reliable raconteur Waters is the most entertaining voice among them, Lowery the most insightful, particularly as he draws meaningful connections to his own work. (He also provides possibly the best quote here, pegging The Wizard of Oz as “a quaalude for the proletariat,” as it ultimately tells viewers to “stop yearning” and be grateful for what they have.)

But too often Lynch/0z feels like a pretentious series of film class term papers, one made bearable by the volume and variety of high-quality clips utilized, which leave few corners of celluloid history (at least the Hollywood annals) untapped. And it does whet the appetite for any Lynch titles you haven’t seen, or haven’t watched in a while. Some of those, as well as Wizard, are being shown at the Roxie in conjunction with the documentary’s run as of Fri/9: Go here for the full schedule.

For some, like Dorothy Gale, there’s indeed “no place like home”—for others, a relentless quest for new experiences is preferable. But if stasis can be its own beast, the lust for novelty almost invariably becomes some kind of monster. A famous grotesque in that regard was Salvator Dalí, not only in the determined eccentricity of his own demeanor, but in the way he and his wife Gala endlessly sought new sensations, new playmates, new pretty-young-faces. That lifestyle of excess, combined with the obsessive pursuit of publicity and profit, ultimately made “the world’s most famous living painter” something of a celebrity-gossip-page clown. His artistry remained brilliant, yet his surreal canvases became devalued through overexposure.

This latest biopic from Mary Harron (whose previous films included dramatized portraits of Valerie Solanas, Bettie Page and the “Manson Girls,” in addition to American Psycho) somewhat disappoints in that it views this singular personality through a rather conventional framework. Christopher Briney provides narrative entree as James, an NYC art-scene wannabe whose androgynous good looks get him swept into the decadent mid-1970s inner circle of flamboyant Dalí (Ben Kingsley) and Gala (Barbara Sukowa). He experiences a crash course in many things—genius, addiction, exploitation and disillusionment. It’s a stock “My formative brush with greatness” tale, alternately lurid and wistful.

But if Dalíland (written by the director’s husband John C. Walsh) seems a bit mundane in its narrative approach to an extraordinary figure, it nonetheless has enough strengths to be worthwhile. Principal among them are the performances—Kingsley is very good, his perhaps surprising restraint as the notoriously over-the-top Dali lending a certain pathos. It also leaves room for Sukowa to chew scenery. Her devouring spouse-muse, who openly seeks sexual satisfaction elsewhere, falls just a hair short of Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein as a caricatured gorgon.

Yet we also grasp how these two need each other, and how their theatrical extremity of behavior is a mutual artwork eternally “in progress.” Dalíland opens at Bay Area theaters including the Opera Plaza and Smith Rafael Film Center on Fri/9.

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