Past Lives, USA, 2023, Dir. Celine Song
This year’s Seattle International Film Festival got off to a resounding start with the world premiere of Past Lives at the Paramount Theater. Written and directed by Celine Song, the wistful drama stars Greta Lee and Teo Yoo as childhood sweethearts who reconnect as adults.
Nora (played by Lee as an adult) and Hae Sung (Yoo) are grade school classmates in Seoul, competing with each other to be the top of their class and just beginning to acknowledge their mutual crush when Nora’s family emigrates to Canada, abruptly ending a would-be romance. Years later, as young adults trying to find themselves, Nora and Hae Sung serendipitously find each other online and rekindle a connection based on Skype calls, emails, and vague promises to someday visit each other. Eventually, though, Nora becomes dissatisfied by the ambiguity of their relationship, and in the intervening years that it takes for Hae Sung to come to New York City for a visit, she has married fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro).
Loosely inspired by Song’s real life experience of her husband and her childhood sweetheart meeting in person, Past Lives is a bittersweet meditation on how intertwined love and happenstance are. Similar in tone to Alan Yang’s 2020 film Tigertail, Nora and Hae Sung’s years long saga, with periods of closeness and drift, illustrate the difficult choices we make when it comes to relationships, how we use relationships as a vehicle for projecting who we want ourselves to be, and the paralysis of fixating on the what ifs and could have beens.
Lee and Yoo are adept at conveying longing while keeping the film chaste, in effect making it more powerful by relying on subtlety and suggestion without veering into melodrama. In other hands the story could have easily fallen into cliche affair territory, but under Song’s quiet direction, the resulting film is an evocative story that is sure to resonate differently across viewers depending on what stage of life and love they are in.
Plan 75, Japan, 2022, Dir. Chie Hayakawa
Chie Hayakawa’s dystopian drama Plan 75 explores a version of Japan that encourages voluntary euthanasia of senior citizens to ease the economic burden of an aging population on the rest of society. Told through three intersecting stories, the film is a disturbingly poignant exploration of what makes life worth living.
Michi (Chieko Baisho) is an independent senior who begins to question her longevity when her once close-knit group of girlfriends begins to crumble. While some of her friends have children and grandchildren who can take them in, Michi finds herself alone and contemplating whether to enroll in the eponymous plan, where those over the age of 75 receive stipends in exchange for eventual euthanasia. Baisho’s restrained performance as the dignified and brave Michi is one of the film’s standouts.
Meanwhile, Hiromu (Hayato Isomura) works for the government agency in charge of recruiting and enrolling elders. Like many other young people, he genuinely believes that the plan is for the greater good of the country; that is until an estranged member of his family decides to sign up, challenging his conviction. Maria (Stefanie Arianne) works for the back end of the program, tasked with processing the belongings of the deceased. She tries to focus on the money she’s making to help cover her daughter’s medical bills back home in the Philippines, but the nature of the work is impossible to forget.
Refracted through these diverse points of view, Hayakawa captures the complexity of the moral issues at the heart of the initiative and the deep ramifications for all those involved. As engaging as it is unsettling, it’s hard to believe that Plan 75 is the director’s debut feature.
Next Sohee, South Korea, 2022, Dir. July Jung
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the SIFF New Directors Competition, July Jung’s Next Sohee follows vivacious high-schooler Sohee (Kim Si-Eun) as she loses herself in an internship, and the intrepid detective Yoo Jin (Bae Doona) determined to bring her justice. Inspired by a true story, the film attempts to be a slow burn but by the end of its two-plus hour run feels mostly tedious rather than thrilling.
As is the norm for students her age, Sohee is placed by her school for an internship at a predatory communications company call center. At first, she’s excited to be making money and feel like a grownup with a job, but the novelty quickly wears off as it becomes clear that the role entails deception and abuse. Sohee and her colleagues are instructed to deter callers from canceling their service, and are subject to all manner of verbal abuse. Not to mention the workplace itself is toxic, fostering unhealthy competition and comparison amongst the staff.
Pressured not to quit by school administrators, Sohee tries to endure as best she can, but eventually reaches a breaking point, after which Yoo Jin takes center stage to investigate what happened. Bae Doona, normally so evocative in other roles, plays the investigator as inexplicably surly, with the ultimate effect of the latter half of the film lacking an engaging lead. Kim Si-Eun, on the other hand, thoroughly inhabits Sohee’s descent from spunky and ambitious to hopeless and insecure.
As a workplace thriller, Next Sohee lacks the tautness of, say, Kitty Green’s 2019 The Assistant. The stakes never quite feel believably high, and while the film may attempt to convey some greater message about corruption, consumerism and corporate villainy, the main takeaway is that work crushes dreams and will slowly but surely suck the life out of anyone.