Past Lives review (2023)
In Celine Song’s captivating film “Past Lives,” the true essence of a relationship is explored through various stages, from innocent childhood crushes to the complexities of adulthood. Each subtle moment of affection becomes a potential catalyst for something more profound. The movie delves into the profound influence relationships, both realized and unrealized, have on our lives, allowing for self-reflection and entertainment.
The story begins in South Korea, where Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) develops a crush on a classmate named Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim). Unfortunately, Na Young’s parents decide to move to Canada, and the two childhood friends drift apart as they navigate different countries and lives. Twelve years later, Na Young, now known as Nora (Greta Lee), pursues her dream of becoming a playwright in New York City, while Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) remains an engineering student in Seoul, never forgetting his childhood sweetheart. The two reconnect through Facebook, and despite the challenges of time zones, their lives revolve around regular Skype calls. However, their burgeoning careers prevent them from taking the next step, leading to a pause in their video calls. Over another twelve years, Nora and Hae Sung’s lives continue, until they finally reconnect when Hae Sung visits New York. The buried emotions they thought they had left behind resurface.
Celine Song‘s mastery of storytelling is evident in her transition from playwright to filmmaker. She skillfully directs the audience’s focus on Nora and Hae Sung, creating a dreamlike atmosphere whenever they are together, as if the world around them fades into the background. Their connection is palpable, even if it never had the chance to manifest physically. Every intense gaze, late-night video call, unsent email, or genuine smile traces the trajectory of their relationship. The characters’ heartfelt dialogues, written by Song, move the audience not through dramatic gestures but by portraying authentic conversations that expose their vulnerable emotions.
Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner beautifully frames the movie, providing careful close-ups of Nora’s expressive face and Hae Sung’s reactions, conveying their emotions as effectively as any line of dialogue. During their long-awaited reunion, the couple effortlessly transitions from basking in the warm glow of the sunset on Brooklyn’s waterfront to joyful rides on the ferry and moonlit strolls in the East Village. This visually contrasts with their earlier setting in Seoul, where as children, they took hilly paths home and played among modern sculptures in a park. Regardless of the location, the camera captures their connection, emphasizing that nothing else matters as much as the present moment they share.
While “Past Lives” is primarily a love story, it delves beyond romantic longing and introspective questions. For Song, it is also an opportunity to explore the immigrant experience. Before leaving South Korea, Nora’s mother justifies the family’s decision to move abroad, saying, “If you leave something behind, you gain something too.” This sentiment echoes throughout Nora’s life, as her experiences lead her to a career in New York City and a marriage with a kind-hearted writer named Arthur (John Magaro). However, it also signifies a departure from her childhood world, and she confesses that she rarely speaks Korean nowadays. When Nora shares her encounter with her childhood crush with Arthur, she admits, “I feel so not Korean when I’m with him,” reflecting her insecurity about her connection with her own culture.
Song integrates Nora and Hae Sung’s shared background into “Past Lives” as a secondary connection, surpassing their individual interests. Hae Sung represents the life Nora left behind when she moved away—an unfulfilled potential that paved the way for something new. Their shared language becomes a barrier for Nora’s American.
husband, who struggles to keep up, allowing Nora and Hae Sung to have private conversations even in his presence. However, sharing a background doesn’t necessarily mean they share the same feelings, as depicted through the movie’s recurring motif of In-Yun, the encounters in past lives that can shape present connections. Nora lightly dismisses this concept when discussing it with Arthur during their first encounter at a writers’ retreat, but Hae Sung takes it seriously as he reflects on his long-delayed visit to New York. They are, quite literally, on divergent paths, yet deep down, they remain the same kids who first locked eyes all those years ago.
Greta Lee and Teo Yoo rise to the challenge of portraying Nora and Hae Sung, infusing their characters with a sense of lived-in ease and grace. Their excitement to communicate with each other feels authentic, and their meandering conversations resonate with reality. The unspoken language between them is conveyed through the way they gaze at each other, hinting at a rich backstory. Their faces subtly convey the depth of their restrained emotions, just beneath the surface of polite smiles. Yet, a single heavy sigh is enough to break the floodgates, releasing tears of mourning for a love that was never meant to be, a life that slipped away, and a childhood that grows more distant with each passing year.
It is this combination of nostalgia, love, and regret that makes “Past Lives” such a poignant and enchanting film. It echoes shades of Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love,” Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” and David Lean’s “The Passionate Friends.” Yet, it confidently establishes itself as Celine Song’s unique creation. She skillfully envelops the settings around her characters, constructing their relationship meticulously over the years, and swiftly reigniting the spark of excitement in their conversations after years of silence. The film embraces the ephemeral nature of “what could have been,” cherishing those sandcastles of possibilities washed away by the tides of time. We are invited to relish the memories of our past lives while acknowledging the losses incurred—childhood treasures left behind, unexplored paths, and relationships that were never destined to be.
In “Past Lives,” Celine Song crafts a tender and introspective exploration of relationships, evoking both a sense of longing and a bittersweet appreciation for the roads not taken. It celebrates the intricacies of human connection, the impact of cultural displacement, and the eternal question of what could have been. Through its enchanting visuals, heartfelt performances, and nuanced storytelling, the film lingers in the hearts of its viewers, leaving them with a profound sense of reflection and appreciation for the fragility and beauty of life’s fleeting moments.
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