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Review: Past Lives

Updated: Jun 15, 2023



Celine Song's stunning debut film Past Lives sets up what would be a love triangle in any mainstream narrative. It opens with Nora (Greta Lee) in a bar with two men seated on either side of her. One is her husband Arthur (John Magaro) and the other is Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), a friend and potential love from the past. A lesser film might play this dynamic for fiery melodrama but Song's film is less about who Nora may choose and more about cultural identity and the paths we choose and don't choose in life.


25 years earlier, we meet Na Young, Nora before immigrating, and Hae Sung as children. They go on a "date" supervised by their parents before Na Young and her family leave for Canada. 12 years pass and we see Nora now living in New York and pursuing her dream of being a writer. Hae Sung is still in Korea but has been looking for Nora/Na Young on Facebook. When they connect again, they form a deep affinity for each other. The geographic distance is too difficult for Nora to handle. Their chances of seeing each other are delayed by years due to their lives and schooling. The film then lets another 12 years pass and their lives have moved on from the earlier courtship. Nora is now a professional playwright married to Arthur who is also a writer. Hae Sung decides to go to New York, leading to yet another reunion between Nora and him.


Song takes this 3-part structure and fills each segment with incredible detail. Large sculptures or art pieces are often around when Hae Sung and Nora meet. There is a vivid depiction of what it was like to use Skype in the early 2000s. Every little detail like this enhances the story and keeps it grounded in reality. My favorite detail might be that Nora and Arthur are both writers and keenly aware of the story they are in. Arthur even comments about how he would be the villain in most stories like this. There are no big fights or dramatic beats here. Instead, there is an intense sense that this is directly from Song's life and experience and she is rendering it on-screen with precise direction. She turns a relatively simple story into something that explores love, cultural identity, and the past.


As Nora reconnects with Hae Sung again, she is fascinated by how Korean he is. He represents an identity that Nora won't have. His values and goals are a representation of the country she left and no longer knows. Despite this disconnection, they still have so many ways in which they connect. Hae Sung is the life she didn't choose, and Arthur is the life she has now. Past Lives takes that crossroad and explores Nora's internal journey as she processes the choices she has made.


The three central performances are all perfect, each anchoring the film with nuanced and honest emotions. Lee is remarkable as Nora, conveying so much through her eyes and body movements. Magaro, given the smallest role, brings so much to Arthur making sure he is never a villain or pathetic, just a man caught in a complicated situation.


Past Lives is one of the year's best films and hopefully, it will find a large audience. Films like this one are special. The best movies are the ones that feel lived in, that create worlds and characters that generate empathy and understanding in us. Past Lives is one of these films.


5/5

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