Producers: David Hinojosa, Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler   Director: Celine Song    Screenplay: Celine Song   Cast: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Seung Ah Moon, Seung Min Yim, Ji Hye Yoon, Won Young Choi, Min Young Ahn, Yeon Woo Seo, Kiha Chang, Hee Chul Shin, Jun Hyuk Park, Jonica T. Gibbs, Emily Cass McDonnell, Federico Rodriguez, Conrad Schott and Kristen Sieh    Distributor: A24  

Grade:  B+

At a time when movies are oversaturated with notions of multiple lives, multiple worlds and multiple universes, with results that are usually chaotic and mindlessly convoluted, playwright-turned-filmmaker Celine Song finds a way to treat such concepts in a way that’s direct, deeply personal and emotionally piercing.

“Past Lives” takes the Korean idea of “In-Yun,” which involves the chance, or fateful, encounters that occur between two people over the course of their lives (or series of lives), and applies it to what amounts to a romantic triangle that remains poised between unresolved longing and what might have been—and what might be in the future.  It’s a film about multiple possibilities made not for the adolescent superhero fan but for adults old enough to meditate on the choices they could have made but didn’t and the outcome of those they did.  And it casts a “Brief Encounter”-like spell even if you dismiss In-Yun, as a character in the film herself does at one point, as fanciful.

The film begins at a New York City bar.  Three people—a thirty-something Korean woman (Greta Lee), a Korean man (Teo Yoo) of similar age and a Caucasian man (John Magaro) are sitting with their drinks across from unseen observers, who speculate in voiceover about their relationships based on body language.  The Koreans are facing one another and conversing, the Caucasian brooding a bit, the odd man out.  By the time the scene recurs toward the film’s end, the questions posed by the unidentified watchers—the audience, really—will be answered.

The answer comes in what are in effect three acts.  The first, set in Seoul twenty-four years earlier, introduces twelve-year old classmates Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) walking home from school.  Hae Sung has just bested Na Young in a class competition, and the girl is taking the loss hard, to Hae Sung’s distress. 

Their mood is much more upbeat on a playdate Na Young’s mother (Ji Hye Yoon) has arranged for them with Hae Sung’s (Min Young Ahn).  As the kids gambol about in a park, Hae Sung’s mother observes how happy they are, and speculates they might get married.  But Na Young’s discloses that her husband (Choi Won-Young) is taking the family to Canada, and that the playdate is intended to leave her daughter with pleasant memories of her homeland.  On the way home, Na Young falls asleep on Hae Sung’s shoulder, the boy obviously sadder about her departure than she is.

Twelve years later, Na Young, now going by Nora (Lee), has moved to New York City, where she is finishing her degree.  Out of curiosity she begins to search the Internet for her childhood friend, only to discover he’s been looking for her as well.  They connect, and begin conversing in regular Skype sessions.  Hae Sung (Yoo) is studying engineering, and planning to go to China for further training.  Na Young, meanwhile, has landed a spot at a writer’s retreat in Montauk.  Fearing that they might be growing too close, she suggests that they end their long-distance chats for a while, and Hae Sung agrees, though the buddies he drinks with at night note that he seems depressed.  Meanwhile Nora, reaching Montauk, makes the acquaintance of Arthur (Magaro) another young writer-in-residence.

Twelve more years pass, and Nora has been married to Arthur, a successful novelist, for the last seven of them.  She’s surprised to get a message from Hae Sung, now an engineer, saying that he’s coming to New York on vacation and would like to get together.  Their initial meeting is stiff, but grows looser as they walk and talk.  Meanwhile Arthur acts as nonchalant as he can about Hae Sung’s presence, but is inevitably a bit nonplussed by the reappearance of an old friend of his wife’s who can’t help but reawaken thoughts of Korea in her.

One can imagine the direction in which a formulaic Hollywood script might take this situation.  Song defies expectations with a last act that treats all three lead characters with sensitivity and depth.  That might be presumed in the case of Nora and Hae Sung, whom Lee and Yoo embody with extraordinary restraint and inner life, but it’s more surprising in Arthur.  At first you might be ready to dismiss the fellow—who plays video games and whose novel is titled “Boner”—as the sort of immature guy who could explode in a jealous rage; but as portrayed by Magaro, he’s a thoughtful husband who harbors some concern about what might transpire but realizes how important it is for Nora to reconnect with her past, and actually encourages her to do so.  Even more remarkable is the curious bond Arthur develops with Hae Sung in their own brief encounters.  The triangle the unseen observers comment upon in the opening scene is indeed a triangle, but an unexpectedly lovely one.

Song and her collaborators—production designer Grace Yun, cinematographer Shabier Kirchner and editor Keith Fraase—present this tale of personal choices, losses and hopes in a naturalistic style, and at a lapidary pace that never presses; indeed, some might find it dilatory.  (The score by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen is similarly understated.)

But the approach allows the characters to express themselves as much, indeed even more, through quiet, halting gestures as through words. And an attentive viewer will be touched by what they convey.  Unlike the typical Hollywood blockbuster, “Past Lives” doesn’t evaporate with the final credits.  It leaves you with something to remember and think about.