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In review: ‘Past Lives’ and ‘The Bear’
How we live with where we’re from.
Past Lives opens with its best moment.
A trio sits at the bar in the middle distance: an Asian man on the left; a white guy on the right; and between them, an Asian woman, laughing and smiling. They all look a little sad, a tad awkward. And then a voiceover, cluing us in that this is a POV shot. Two people are watching these three people, wondering aloud about them as we push in. Who are they? What, precisely, are the relationships here? Are they tourists with a translator at this New York bar? Coworkers? Not at four in the morning.
What’s their story?
The woman looks at the camera—at the prying couple; at us in the audience—and we cut back to 24 years in the past, where the story begins. Nora (Moon Seung-ah) is about to emigrate with her family from Korea to Canada with her artistically minded parents; her mother (Ji Hye Yoon) wants to give her one final happy memory of Korea, so she allows Nora, around 12, to go on a date with Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) to a sculpture garden. They laugh and run and play; she holds his hand on the drive home. It is young love and it is fleeting.
Twelve years later, Facebook has allowed reconnection of the sort that previous generations of endlessly uprooted children could only dream of. While googling friends from the old country, Nora (played by Greta Lee as an adult) realizes Hae Sung (now Teo Yoo) left a message on her dad’s film company’s Facebook trying to track her down. They Skype. Old feelings are rekindled over the months. And they realize that the continents and oceans between them are too great a distance to be bridged by the internet, that emotional proximity is no replacement for physical connection. Nora meets Arthur (John Magaro) at an artists’ retreat. Hae Sung finds a girlfriend of his own.
Another full turn of the Korean zodiac later: Nora is married to Arthur. Hae Sung is single. And he’s finally coming to New York City to see Nora. This is the trio at the bar. This has been their story.
Past Lives is tender, if slight; a brief examination of the ways in which the past can pile up and collide into the present. Nora and Hae Sung’s entire relationship is a question of what-ifs: What if she had stayed in Korea, what if he had come to New York when they reconnected online? As the child of a mildly nomadic home—in my case military, not moviemaking—I empathize with the two adults as they fumble toward some understanding of their past feelings and their present circumstances. Greta Lee and Teo Yoo are very good at bridging that emotional gap for the audience.
But the MVP here is John Magaro, who delivers a quietly devastating performance as Nora’s husband, Arthur. If there is anyone to whom this situation is unfair, it is him, and while it is rarely verbalized outside of his suggestion that he is learning to speak Korean so he can understand what Nora is muttering in her sleep, you can see it constantly in Magaro’s face. Despite their marriage, despite their mutual understanding and their shared work as creatives in Brooklyn, despite the fact that she wouldn’t have been able to stay in the country without their wedding, he fears he is an interloper. There is a part of her that is, and always will be, foreign. The smiling grimace he wears at the bar while the two of them chatter in Korean, while he catches only snippets of their conversation as the cocktails pile up, betrays his sadness at the part of her she’ll never be able to unlock—the key to which Hae Sung owns simply because of their shared past.
Of the two A24 films about female writers living in New York City trying to deal with their various marital insecurities released this summer, I probably prefer You Hurt My Feelings to Past Lives. But writer-director Celine Song’s debut feature is subtly wrenching and well worth seeking out if you’re suffering from big-budget burnout like so many of us are.
Discussion of the second season of The Bear to follow, so please do not read further if you’re worried about spoilers.
One reason I don’t love reviewing a TV show one episode at a time—why I always thought weekly recaps were a deeply weird way to interact with a show on a critical, rather than a fandom, level—is that in the age of prestige TV, a season of work is a discrete unit. You cannot appreciate the individual pieces without seeing the thing as a whole first. David Simon’s frustration with recapper life was not only justified but absolutely correct: You wouldn’t review a novel one chapter at a time, so what makes you think reviewing a TV show one episode at a time is a worthwhile endeavor?
I bring this up because I saw some fidgety frustration with the second season of The Bear, which hit Hulu at the end of June. Indeed, I felt some myself, mentioning to my wife at one point that this felt more like feel-good Ted Lasso than The Bear. It was, tonally, much different from the first season, which felt a bit like watching a show from inside a pressure cooker: Carmy Berzatto (Jeremy Allen White), a chef who had worked at three-Michelin-starred restaurants, was trying to save his family’s divey sandwich shop, The Beef, from being shuttered after his brother committed suicide. Recovering addict Carmy and a cast of misfits—Cousin Richie (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who resents Carmy’s efforts to improve the shop; Syd (Ayo Edebiri), a talented sous chef who has had failures of her own; Marcus (Lionel Boyce), whose heart lies with desserts; and Tina (Liza Colón-Zayas), the saucy old-timer who is set in her ways—deal with mounting financial problems and all the hardships that come with working in a restaurant and trying not to murder each other.
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If I had a complaint about the first season of The Bear, it’s that it ended on a giant copout. After all the stress and frustration and heartburn, Carmy found hundreds of thousands of dollars hidden in pasta sauce, money that could be used to pay back the (seemingly mob-fronted) money the family owed to Uncle Jimmy before anyone got their legs broken. A deus ex condimentum.
Throughout the second season we saw characters improve, better themselves, come to grips with who they are and what they can achieve with just a little assistance. Carmy has a girlfriend, the delightful Claire-Bear (Molly Gordon)! Richie learns respect for the craft while working at a three-star restaurant! Marcus goes to Copenhagen and hones his skills! Tina learns the importance of technique in the kitchen, excelling in her culinary arts class! It’s all coming together for the crew of their new restaurant, The Bear.
There were still sharp edges here and there—remodeling the restaurant to turn it from a hole-in-the-wall to a fine-dining experience offered some of the kind of stress from season one; at the new season’s midway point there’s this wonderful flashback episode in which we see how Carmy’s family life has contributed to his mental state—but this season was, all in all, a little lighter. Not as treacly as the third-season of Ted Lasso (no one turned to the camera and delivered a lecture on the importance of respecting the privacy of nude selfies, for instance), but not as cutting as The Bear had been.
Then, in one of the all-time great rug pulls, their shared success on opening night—in which the team uses their newfound skills to come together, pulling out a triumph after Carmy gets locked in the walk-in freezer—comes crashing down because Carmy’s emotional problems simply will not allow him, or anyone around him, to have happiness, even in victory. It was exhilarating and heartbreaking all at once. Again, this is why the whole season matters, why no individual piece is greater than the sum of the parts. And it’s why I can’t wait for the next season to drop.