Review – Past Lives

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Overview

Synopsis Nora and Hao Sung have a complicated relationship. After falling in love as teenagers and separated by life's circumstances, they're affected as they try to reconnect in the future.

Length 1 hour, 45 minutes

Release Date June 2, 2023

 

Rating PG-13

Distribution A24

Directing Celine Song

Writing Celine Song

Composition Christopher Bear, Daniel Rossen

Starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro

Released in theaters back in June and then on home media just over a month ago, Past Lives is a recent A24 film that I did the disserve of missing while in theaters. It fell by the wayside for me, despite rumors of extremely positive reviews coming out of circles I trust, and I only just had the chance to watch it killing time on a long flight from Las Vegas to Chicago. And I am glad that I finally did stop procrastinating because it has proven to be one of the best films of the year!

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: None.
Language/Crude Humor: A few uses of f*** and s***.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink and smoke frequently.
Sexual Content: A few references but nothing is depicted.
Spiritual Content: Some Buddhist themes and one character is implicitly Jewish.
Other Negative Content: None.
Positive Content: Themes of identity, connectedness, love, and communication.

Review

There is a fascinating Korean word called inyeon, which refers to the way that human beings connect to each other across lifetimes in small moments that leave profound spiritual and meaningful impact on each other’s lives. It is a complicated Buddhist concept that I cannot begin to summarize, but that word plays an important role in the recently released movie Past Lives, which is explicitly about love and its ability to affect our lives across time and space.

As one character summarizes it, “It’s an inyeon if two strangers even walk past each other in the street and their clothes accidentally brush, because it means there must have been something between them in their past lives. If two people get married, they say it’s because there have been 8,000 layers of inyeon over 8,000 lifetimes.”

This concept is deeply tied into the themes of one of 2023’s most impressive breakout films. Past Lives marks the directorial debut of Celine Song, and the movie bears a passing resemblance to her own life, as a woman who immigrated from South Korea to New York City and also married a lascivious and kindly intellectual secular Jewish playwright, just as her character has, while largely leaving her home country behind her. It is clear though that her emotional ties to her home country and people still connect to her, and her film is an exploration of those ties.

As the movie starts out, Hae Sung and Nora are two teenagers living in South Korea who swiftly fall in love in that innocent and pure way high school sweethearts are prone to do. When it turns out Nora is being forced to immigrate to North America for her parent’s work, her youthful romance is cut short and the two never expect to see each other again.

Two decades later, the two surprisingly reconnect after Hae Sung has concluded his mandatory military service. Nora has become a successful playwright in New York City and married a successful Jewish author. Meanwhile, he briefly moved to China for work, sought out his own relationships, and began feeling pangs of longing for his youthful romance, desiring to reconnect to her, even just to close the book on that relationship.

The odyssey that follows is neither shocking nor salacious. Past Lives has no sex scenes and doesn’t float the idea that these two people are likely to commit to a flight of fancy and flee the country for a chance at long-fated love. Instead, Past Lives is interested in exploring the tension of that unrequited love and entertaining what it means for these two characters who have grown in parallel lives in widely opposing directions.

The movie makes it very clear that these two people are not the same people as they were when Nora moved. The movie highlights this detail through the fact that she fully adopted her English name shortly after immigrating and now rarely speaks Korean as an adult, with Hae Sung commenting that her Korean is rusty. However, both characters—whether they met in previous lives or in this life—have to grapple with the fact that they were deeply in love at one point in their lives—technically twice—and that the connection they formed is in some way permanently carried within them.

Past Lives is a masterclass in creating drama and tension of this sort, capturing dozens of moments of quiet intense chemistry where our two leads grapple with the fact that they really do both struggle with these thoughts.

Nora’s husband Arthur goes as far as to deeply question his role in this situation. He loves her and he plainly states that he’s jealous of Hae Sung for coming into his life and bringing his marriage into question after seven years together, noting that even as he loves his wife he doesn’t fully understand her mind and thoughts. However, for her, her marriage isn’t in question. She has committed to this life and isn’t backing away from it for anything.

The film carries its Buddhist subtext through these transactions. While neither character is implied to be deeply religious, both characters seem to carry some of the basic cultural assumptions about reincarnation from their upbringing, even if Nora sarcastically suggests that such grand and spiritual pronouncements are just word games or ways for Koreans to seduce each other. The reality is that Hae Sung and Nora’s connection has carried 20 years into the future.

Their connection cannot easily be broken because all connections are carried with us. They become a part of who we are, ingrained in our identity as equally as the choices we’ve made to move away from those connections. The tension comes from the inevitable “what if” question that must arise in all such cases like this. What if Nora never left South Korea? What if Hae Sung or Nora dropped their lives and abandoned everything for love? What if they were married and had kids? What does a future for them look like without each other?

Guillermo del Toro may be slightly overstating in his pronouncement that Past Lives is “the best feature debut in the last twenty years,” but he isn’t too far off. It achieves with modest ambitions the feat of reaching deeply into the hearts of these characters and showing the ways that love works as a force in our lives. The strong morals of its characters plant these people in a space where feelings can be honestly expressed, even if they’re awkward and painful. As a result, Past Lives comes alive as one of the best freshman features of the decade.

Positives

+ Strong performances with deep chemistry
+ Powerful impactful script
+ Beautiful cinematography

Negatives

- Somewhat relax pacing

The Bottom Line

Past Lives is an excellent directorial debut and one of the strongest films of the year, telling a powerful story about growth, identity, and how the connections we make in life carry with us.

 

9.3

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Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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