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Past Lives ★★★★★



Director: Celine Song

Cast: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro

Release Date: 8th September 2023

Starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro, Past Lives is the directorial debut of South Korean-Canadian filmmaker Celine Song. The film follows the lives of Nora (Lee) and Hae Sung (Yoo), two childhood friends from South Korea who reunite after several decades apart, causing them to reevaluate their relationship and their own lives.

When we first meet Na Young (Nora’s birthname) and Hae Sung in South Korea, they are close friends and implied childhood sweethearts. A quiet moment of competitiveness between them discloses Na Young’s ambition, but Hae Sung comes across as quietly resigned to brevity. Although their interactions as children are limited (due to Na Young swiftly immigrating to Canada with her family), there is enough of a foundation for their unconventional relationship.

At first glance, audiences may brush Past Lives off as another cultural conflict drama that pits East against West, but Song gently yet masterfully builds on these tropes to bring in layers within the narrative and visuals. Their lives as adults could not be more different – Nora is a playwright living in New York, while Hae Sung is studying to be an engineer in South Korea. When they reconnect online, their reunion evokes the same melancholic vibe of Richard Linklater’s sequel Before Sunset, but Song balances the depth of their reunion with emotional elements of their respective cultures.

Nora has mostly diminished her Korean identity and comes across as a detached person with little interest in connecting with someone on a deeper level, as if she needs a part that is hers alone. She even seems to dismiss the idea of “in-yeon”, a uniquely Korean concept closely resembling destiny, as a chat-up line for Koreans. Her cynicism can refer to the influence of Western culture on her upbringing, her loneliness from when she first arrived in Canada or her own personal ambitions, but there is a subtle yet prominent conflict between her two identities and a reluctance to open herself up.

In contrast, Hae Sung seems eager to right a wrong from his childhood – probably the most content time of his life because of Na Young. He makes the first move in trying to find Nora and has yet to leave home, hinting at the hope that she would return to Korea, and they can reunite. However, he is apparently confined by societal conventions of his heritage, enabling his lack of self-esteem and confidence to reinforce his introversion and compound his romantic expectations. Therefore, his search for Nora hints at a desire to see if she is truly the one that got away.

The beauty of Past Lives comes into full force in the third act, which sees Nora and Hae Sung finally reunite in person after 24 years. Yoo and Lee’s compelling performances convey the awkwardness after so long apart, but their subtle body language and shared looks build enough tension between them – with a key scene by a carousel being an exceptionally structured visual as couples surround them but are truthfully connected on a profound though platonic level.

In addition, the inclusion of Nora’s husband Arthur (First Cow‘s John Magaro) further complicates their relationship on both a linguistic and spiritual level – unable to communicate and connect with Nora in the same way as she does with Hae Sung, Arthur’s inability to reaffirm himself in her life becomes increasingly at risk. There is also a danger of a third wheel amid the core love story swaying towards clichés, but it doesn’t happen here. Similar to Lee and Yoo, Magaro’s nuanced performance elevates the multi-layered poignancy to bring an additional emotional tension that audiences may not expect but feels absolutely necessary. 

In her directorial debut, Song’s beautiful screenplay explores the sentimental depth of in-yeon and, more specifically, how Nora and Hae Sung consider it in relation to their own complicated relationship. Combined with the detailed eye of cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, Song’s gentle direction brilliantly collides the cultures between the three characters to manifest into a profound, heartbreaking realisation. She also cleverly uses reflections through various methods, such as water, mirrors and even a camera, to challenge how the audience sees the characters, as well as how the characters see themselves. In addition, her intricate eye allows the audience to see certain moments that may otherwise be missed to reach an intimacy that would otherwise be unattainable.

Past Lives is one of those rare films that charms audiences with its subtle beauty but wins them over with its immense intelligence and heart. The combination of its dazzling performances, considerate direction and poignant screenplay, paints this as one of the best films of 2023 and Song as a filmmaker to watch.

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