Past Lives (review) – Celine Song’s stunning debut holds you tight and doesn’t let go


Past Lives is now showing in cinemas nationwide.


The Korean concept of In-Yun is brought up throughout Celine Song’s heart-wrenching debut, Past Lives. Roughly translating to fate, In-Yun has deep ties to the philosophy of reincarnation. It suggests that if two people meet, they have interacted in a past life, and if two people fall in love, they have met repeatedly across multiple past lives. It’s a touching sentiment, but it does not factor in the what-ifs that come with thousands of previous interactions leading up to the present.



Past Lives dabbles in the melancholia of these what-ifs. Spanning twenty-four years, it tells the story of Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), childhood sweethearts separated when Nora’s family immigrated to Toronto from Seoul. They had a brief online reunion in their early twenties but have otherwise not seen each other since. Now in their mid-thirties, Hae Sung comes to New York to visit Nora, who is now married to an American writer, Arthur (John Magoro). Nora and Hae Sung are happy to see each other again, but the question of their once romantic feelings hangs in the air like a misty Autumn dew. Is that naive childhood romance still present? If not, then what has been lost? What could have been?

Past Lives is a soulful film of such intimacy that it does not feel like a feature debut. It has a refreshingly simple premise with myriad emotional nuances, echoing the same subdued beauty of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. In a key scene, Arthur laments how Nora and Hae Sung would be soul mates in another story. But life does not always follow a fairy tale path. Circumstances change, time goes by, and we are often left clinging to the ideas of people and places rather than the realities of what they were. In a sense, they belong to our past lives.

As Nora and Hae Sung tour New York, reconnecting over their mutual memories, the film explores how we pine for the things we’ve lost through remarkable writing and characterisation. It is a movie about longing and the weight of such yearning. The characters’ memories of each other and what they represent form the crux of the film’s thematic richness. Hae Sung sees himself as ordinary and has perhaps never gotten past the thrill of Nora’s childhood affection. Viewing her as extraordinary for her grand ambitions of obtaining a Nobel Prize, he longs for that attraction to him once more. This desire only deepens as Nora, first through transcontinental immigration and then through marriage to another man, becomes more unattainable to him.



Just as Hae Sung appears to be in love with the idea of Nora, Nora too sees Hae Sung as a stand-in for her own longing – that of home. Nora was known as Na Young when she lived in Seoul, but she was made to adopt a Western name upon moving to Toronto. Subtextually, Past Lives examines the mental weight of immigration and how moving away from the people and culture you once knew can take a subconscious toll. Nora is happily married and does not seem to return Hae Sung’s affections, yet he is home to her. He represents a time when she was still Na Young, where her world did not seem so big and aimless. He is a familiarity within a terrifying world – a walking, talking In-Yun that Nora cannot help but ponder over. What could their lives have been like if Na Young had never become Nora?

Song’s tender writing and direction capture the tragic beauty of this setup. She shoots the pair from afar, lingering on their interactions in an almost voyeuristic manner, a choice which highlights the distance between them. Their longings run parallel, and their histories are intertwined, yet they remain separate, whether by geography, intentions, or the sea of uncertainty in which the film dips its toes. Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography gorgeously frames the settings as fertile land for romance to flourish yet maintains a distinct tinge of sadness as the soft lighting and distanced shot composition suggest a growing disconnect. At the same time, Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s piano score emphasises the opportunity and conflict of the characters’ reunion. Seeing a friend again is a singular joy, but being unable to act on potential love is a heartache of unrivalled magnitude.

This is a film in which silence says far more than dialogue ever could. It is soul-destroying in its bittersweetness. Teo Yoo and John Magoro are wonderful as two men from different walks of life who are doing their best to navigate a complicated situation where feelings are murky and contradictory. In a just world, Greta Lee would be Oscar-nominated for her work here. She plays a sublimely empathetic lead whose longing forms the bedrock of the film’s titanic strength. Through powerful facial expressions and a repressed delicacy, Lee’s subdued performance embodies all of the strife and theoretical prospects that make the film so uniquely engrossing.

William Faulkner once said that the best stories concern the human heart in conflict with itself. Past Lives is the ultimate culmination of that sentiment. Absorbing, honest, and briskly paced, with allure and poignancy to spare, it is a heartbreaking film that is so masterfully made and profoundly sincere that you want to stay in its world regardless of the emotional cost. Even the most stone-hearted people will struggle not to shed a tear at the lives of these captivating characters and the ways Celine Song portrays the universal humanity of their circumstances. Past Lives is one of 2023’s very best films!


  • Past Lives | United States | South Korea | 2023
5

Summary

William Faulkner once said that the best stories concern the human heart in conflict with itself. Past Lives is the ultimate culmination of that sentiment. Absorbing, honest, and briskly paced, with allure and poignancy to spare, it is a heartbreaking film that is so masterfully made and profoundly sincere that you want to stay in its world regardless of the emotional cost.

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