For her debut film, playwright Celine Song has crafted a delicate and gently melancholy update of Brief Encounter, taking in themes of diaspora and reconciliation. It’s a wise and sensitive drama with a romantic heart that doesn’t beat any less strongly for all that it also has a stiff spine of pragmatism.
Greta Lee and Teo Yoo play Nora and Hae-sung, two youngsters in Seoul who would appear destined to be together once they can articulate the way each is drawn to the other. Then Nora’s family moves to Canada and the pair’s tie is severed. They reconnect twice more, via Skype as twenty-something students twelve years later, and then again a further dozen years down the line as Hae-sung comes to visit Nora in her new home of New York. The pair’s connection is still very much evident, but there are factors that intervene, most notably Nora’s husband Arthur (John Magaro).
For a playwright, Song doesn’t force grandiose monologues into her character’s mouths. Instead, Lee and Yoo express the weight of time and distance through a slump of their shoulders, a furrowed brow, occasional monolithic gazes of longing. The key to the entire film is its restraint, and its power lies in what is unsaid. Lee and Yoo are perfectly cast, being completely convincing both as young idealists, and as the more worldly and lived-in souls that they later become, conveying the years with gentle shifts of posture and some subtly perfect costume design and hairstyle.
Magaro (First Cow) also excels in a tricky role as Nora’s sensitive, supportive husband who can feel the attraction between the two, yet decides discretion is the better part of valour. As in the classic Brief Encounter, Song expertly grinds the audience’s instinct for a star-crossed tale against our empathy for the kind, decent, and blameless man the female protagonist has at home. With both Nora and Arthur being writers, the two are more than aware how these narratives work, ‘I’d be the villain,’ Arthur wryly muses as the two prepare for Hae-sung’s visit.
Perhaps the film is never as ambiguous in its outcome as it might have been. Song is so good at siting the two leads in their respective homes, continents apart, providing a sense of place in both New York and Seoul that it plays as a subconscious extra barrier to the pair’s chances of being together. But it never – for all that one might will – gives in to the suggestion that it would be the right thing for the either. Nonetheless, it concludes in a way that feels correct, inevitable, and somehow absolutely wrenching. It’s a superb narrative feat and something of a piece of gossamer magic.
Screening as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023