Past Lives

June 2nd, 2023




People-watching is a favorite thing I like to do. Not in a creepy, “stop staring at me ya weirdo” kind of way. I’m talking about having lunch downtown on a patio and seeing people hustling to the places they need to be. I really enjoy that. Seeing people and faces, letting my mind drift off, or looking at someone and wondering where they have been in life. Celine Song’s film Past Lives begins with someone looking at the three main characters and wondering what their story is. What follows is a tale of childhood, growing up with a friend, reconnecting, love tempted, paths divided, and how life can have different plans for us. It’s a beautiful expression of the big questions we all ask ourselves. What if I went with that person instead of staying with another? What if I didn’t get married? And what would my life have looked like? Past Lives jumps into those questions with one of the most romantic, heartbreaking, and beautiful films of 2023.

What is miraculous about Past Lives is that this is director Song’s first narrative feature. It’s shocking. This is a fully realized and incredibly open narrative. We are first introduced to Na Young- eventually Americanized to Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), two kids from South Korea. Nora’s family is going to immigrate to America, while Hae Sung is staying in his country. They say goodbye one last time on a walk home from school. After that moment they will not see one another for another 12 years. This is when the two are in College, connecting through Facebook, with Hae video chatting with Nora in New York. There is an instant connection between the two, clearly an unspoken attraction, and as we see their cross-country friendship grow, Nora decides to stop it before going further. There is just too much distance or is it just too hard to have a love of this strong work?

Twelve more years pass and Nora is now an aspiring playwright, married to Arthur (John Magaro), and living in New York. Hae Sung has never left South Korea or gotten over Nora’s sudden departure. When he finally has a business conference in New York he hopes to finally connect with his lost childhood crush. At this point, their lives have moved on but when the two meet those old feelings brew up above the surface. What Song does such a remarkable job with here is creating uncomfortable tension, while still allowing her characters to be adults. It’s that genuine reality of adulthood that hits, where Nora must contemplate if she still has feelings for Hae Sung and he must contemplate respecting her boundaries, and respect her marriage. That’s where the heart-wrenching drama unfolds. You will leave Past Lives wishing for one choice made and aching for another choice sacrificed. These are the conflicts of love.

It’s not just in the storytelling that Past Lives works. It’s the trio of performances that elevate and make every moment matter. It’s the composition that Song uses in each frame. The way Nora and Sung use their body language instead of their words to convey emotions. The way this story leads back to her husband Arthur, who doesn’t come off as a jerk, but as an understanding human being. There is such a fine line to walk with characters like this, where the slightest choice can make you hate a person, or the romance can become sappy. Past Lives is none of the above. This is a well-crafted masterpiece on human interactions.

An interesting factor at the end of my screening of Past Lives director Song spoke about how viewers have left the film feeling they love their significant other more or even become inspired to break it off. That is the power of this film. It’s in the same vein as films such as Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, or Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. This is an instantly great piece of cinema and a breakout film for Celine Song. Past Lives is fantastic now, later, in this life, and the next.



Written by: Leo Brady

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