Past Lives (United States/South Korea, 2023)

July 16, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Past Lives Poster

This review could be considered to contain spoilers.

Past Lives is quietly powerful – an understated examination of longing, connection, and unconsummated love. In the way it plays with concepts like fate and soul mates, it’s sort-of an anti-Sleepless in Seattle. There’s something bittersweet yet reassuring about the way the movie approaches its central relationship. Many of the beats and emotions are universal even if the story is specific to these characters and their circumstances. And, by relying on long, lingering takes and non-verbal moments, first-time director Celine Song captures details that a more hurried approach would gloss over. The climactic encounter between the leads, so pregnant with unspoken feelings that are apparent in their body language, reminded me of the final sequence of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, the greatest of the silent star’s repertoire.

Song’s overall approach recalls Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Although less reflective and more grounded, Past Lives evokes some of the same feelings. Perhaps one reason why the film works as well as it does is because it encapsulates a reality that most romantic movies ignore in their quest for box office gold and “happily ever after” endings. Past Lives acknowledges the longing, dreaming, and barrage of “what ifs” while recognizing that there is no one true path to contentment.

Past Lives opens in the present day with an unseen couple observing the interactions among three people sitting at a bar: Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), Nora (Greta Lee), and Arthur (John Magaro). Noting the seeming intimacy between Hae Sung and Nora and the way in which Arthur seems to be an outsider, the observers wonder about the relationships between the two Asians and their Caucasian companion. Although they will never know the truth, the movie proceeds to inform viewers.

The time frame jumps back 24 years to the turn of the century and the location switches from New York City to South Korea. We meet a young Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) and Nora (who goes by her Korean name of Na Young, and is played by Seung Ah Moon), who are best friends. Every day, they walk home from school together and compete to see who can get the best grades on tests. Their friendship is severed when Na Young’s parents decide to immigrate to Toronto. They lose touch but neither completely forgets the other. A dozen years pass and Hae Sung decides to find Nora, who is now living in New York. The two reconnect via Skype and become obsessed with on-line chats. Long-distance romantic sparks fly but Hae Sung won’t commit to visiting New York and Nora has no interest in returning to her homeland. Recognizing the futility of pursuing a relationship, Nora suggests that they no longer talk. Fast-forwarding another 12 years, the narrative comes to the present where circumstances have changed for both parties. Hae Sung has just broken up with a long-term girlfriend and decided to come to New York to visit Nora, who is married to Arthur. When the two old friends meet face-to-face for the first time in 24 years, the romantic tension is palpable. The connection is so strong that it worries Arthur, but both Nora and Hae Sung attempt to reassure him that, whatever exists between them, Hae Sung has not come to ruin their marriage. Hae Sung believes it. Nora believes it. But, as impartial viewers, do we?

The title comes from the conceit of in-yeon, which argues that when a person encounters another person and has even a brief interaction, it means they have met in a past life. Lovers have an even deeper connection, having met repeatedly in past lives. The implication is that, although Hae Sung and Na Young are destined not to be with each other in this life, they may have been together in an earlier life and/or could potentially be together in the future.

The emotions roiling beneath the surface of this seemingly placid drama make watching it an intense and involving experience. The acting by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo emphasizes all the underlying things transpiring just beneath the dialogue and interpersonal interactions. Parts of Past Lives are in Korean but no subtitles are needed to read body language. Many movies have been made that explore the sweet anguish accompanying unrequited love but few films explore requited but repressed emotions this deeply. Although the movie is primarily told from Nora’s perspective, Past Lives takes the time to flesh out both Hae Sung and Arthur’s characters. In Casablanca, which plumbs a not-dissimilar triangle, Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris. In Past Lives, Hae Sung and Na Young will always have Korea. And, perhaps in another lifetime, they can have more.

Past Lives (United States/South Korea, 2023)

Director: Celine Song
Cast: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro
Screenplay: Celine Song
Cinematography: Shabier Kirchner
Music: Christopher Bear, Daniel Rossen
U.S. Distributor: A24
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2023-06-02
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: In English, Mandarin, and Korean with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1