Past Lives (2023)
Past Lives (2023)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 45 min.

Release Date: June 23rd, 2023 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Celine Song Actors: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Seung Ah Moon, Seung Min Yim




ora (Greta Lee), Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), and Arthur (John Magaro) are drinking at a bar at 4:00 am, prompting an outsider couple to ponder how the three are related (borrowing a hint of a gimmick from “Carol”). Are two of them a couple? Are two related? Is one a tour guide?

24 years earlier, preteen Na Young, who ponders using the name Nora when her family immigrates from Korea to Canada, is smitten with classmate Hae Sung, whom she finds to be manly; a childhood crush (first love!) that only lasts a couple of years. She even thinks about the prospects of marrying him – an act he’ll surely oblige, if she’s forceful – despite the two being too young to do much beyond hanging out at school or at a park or playground. Their parents do arrange a date for the children before they’re separated for what is presumably forever. And once Nora arrives in her new foreign land, she immediately and expectedly has a difficult time assimilating; making friends and fitting in are hard even without the cultural and language barrier. Meanwhile, as Hae Sung grows up, he does his compulsory stint with the Korean military. Their lives diverge considerably, yet even after twelve years apart (which ends up in the year 2012), traversing early adulthood in different countries surrounded by different communities (with Nora pursuing a writing career that takes her to New York for an artist residency), they both still harbor feelings for one another.

“If you leave something behind, you gain something too.” Audiences are told about the the lead twosome’s separation and remarkable distance, but so little time was spent establishing their youthful connection that it doesn’t seem as extraordinary as it ought to when they reconnect after so many years. For viewers, they’ve been apart for mere minutes. Their lives are only divergent in the visual sense that the actor and actress have changed into older counterparts. Even verbal references must make mention of essentially the only conversation witnessed and the one interaction shown. Their history should have been rich and meaningful, yet it can only really be assumed and imagined.

Nevertheless, their attempts at rekindling a friendship – or more – over video chats possess an undeniable sweetness and sentimentality. In the vein of classic movie romances, these lovers are ostensibly destined to be together, but must endure periods of disconnect to elevate an eventual reunion (not unlike “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and, in its footsteps, “La La Land,” as well as “Broadcast News”). And with the subplot of an artist striving to succeed in a challenging creative industry, there’s also the notion that Nora should pursue her career above frivolous flirtations; deny her feelings for the sake of commercial and financial success (perhaps a shade like “Cinema Paradiso”).

It may take place in 2012 (and 2024, after another 12 years pass during the course of the picture, amusingly making the setting minimally futuristic), but many of the filmmaking sensibilities feel far older and more traditional, not just with the gentle manners and quiet, good-natured characters (exhibiting almost no conflict other than that of light, emotional perplexity, comparably without typical sensationalized villains), but also with the cinematographic style, the low budget, and the lack of edgier material (such as sexuality and language). It’s all wonderfully understated and serene, building up personas and emotions through calming shots of scenery and reflection and tiny idiosyncrasies. Despite the curiously plain conduct, augmented of course by fairy-tale scenarios, this is an uncommonly pleasant, heartening tale of love and loss. The what-if questions about an unrealized, potentially serendipitous relationship are approached with a distinct absence of theatrics; over-the-top fantasy (and exemplary Hollywood conventions) in this love story isn’t of interest to writer/director Celine Song, who uses her own experiences to craft a semi-autobiographical premise. The realism is encouraging, astounding, and inspirational (even with its minor similarities to “Two for the Road,” “When Harry Met Sally…,” and “Annie Hall” [among other Woody Allen scripts]), demonstrating just how unusually entertaining a wholesome, unadorned premise about ordinary people can be. “That’s not how life works.”

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10