The first time we see the three main characters in Past Lives, the outstanding debut film written and directed by Celine Song, is from across a bar, while two people who don’t know each other are trying to figure out how this group of people knows each other. These two customers at the bar are making their best estimates as they observe Nora (Greta Lee), Hae Sung (Yoo Teo), and Arthur (John Magaro).
They are trying to determine who is married, who is related, and who is the third wheel in this equation. Throughout Past Lives, we find ourselves figuring out where these three will end up, what they mean to each other, and what their stories are. This is because Past Lives is a heartbreakingly romantic film, impeccably told, and masterfully crafted to make what is possibly the best film of 2023.
The song suddenly skips back in time 24 years before this hanging out in a bar and shows a younger Nora and her family preparing to leave South Korea and go to the United States. In the moments before they leave, Nora goes on a “kid date” with Hae Sung, a fellow student in her class who she has a crush on. Following a lovely day spent together, Nora and her family go on a flight that takes them several thousand kilometers away.
The next section of the song takes place twelve years later, when Nora is attending school in New York City. There, she discovers that Hae Sung has been hunting for her. The two reconnect, begin a friendship over the internet, and quickly become nearly inseparable in the course of their lengthy discussions conducted over the internet.
As the rest of the movie progresses, song builds up to this scene in the bar by telling a story that spans a quarter of a century. This story demonstrates how much people can change in their lives, as well as how the relationships that are important to them can shift due to these changes.
In a manner very similar to that of the great film Return to Seoul, which was released a year ago, Past Lives illustrates the numerous lives that we live within this one, as well as how we develop into new and different persons while maintaining our identity. For instance, the Nora we meet as an adult is not the same as the Nora we first met when she was a child, who is not the same as the Nora we first met in college, who was not the same as the Nora we first met in the present day.
There are certain aspects of that person who remains, but we continue to develop while preserving our essential selves. However, how one views their past life is an important factor in many different ways. For example, Nora may view the person she was when she was growing up in South Korea as an entirely different person.
However, for Hae Sung, who has these childhood moments as the only times he’s spent with this girl he’s been fascinated by for years, it almost becomes the core of his understanding of who she is.
The concept of “inyeon,” in which moments in one another’s lives bind them to each other for the rest of their lives, is frequently revisited in Past Lives. This could be a random individual that a person sees while walking down the street or someone with whom a person has had a significant relationship.
Despite this, Inyeon investigates the hypothesis that every one of our encounters and relationships was predetermined, that we were always supposed to meet these individuals in our life, and that they affect us regardless of the circumstances. This fundamental concept makes Past Lives an emotionally engaging experience, as we see Nora and Hae Sung mature, evolve, get closer to one another, and eventually drift apart.
The song plays with these expectations, but makes their relationship just as vital, regardless of how this story might conclude. Song does this because this is a film and we anticipate that such stories will end with the protagonists reconciling and falling in love. One of the characters observes at one point that if this tale were a movie, they would be cast in the role of the antagonist, the person who gets in the way of what the viewer wants.
It’s a sweet scene that doesn’t get everything wrong, but the song’s ability to toy with challenging concepts and feelings makes this an even better story in the long run. This is neither a story with a happy ending nor a conclusion that is disappointing; rather, it is a story about the complexities and nuances of our lives and the connections we have, as well as the fact that our journeys through life do not always go according to plan. And there are instances when the unpredictability and the surprises are even more pleasant than we had hoped.
Greta Lee is fantastic in the role of Nora because she still embodies the childlike qualities of playfulness and curiosity that made her such a lovable character when she was younger. However, she is also essential in demonstrating how the path that life takes us on transforms who we are in some ways while keeping our hearts the same. Yoo Teo is particularly fantastic in the role of Hae Sung, who can’t get out of his head the image of the girl he fell in love with when he was a child.
Since Yoo Teo’s portrayal makes this love into something that is ultimately quite appealing and moving, it is difficult not to wish for him and Nora to be back together. Finally, Magaro is a remarkable addition to this group, even though he does not have nearly as much screen time as these two. His hangdog appearance, along with his fears and apprehensions, make him a character that could have made him a cliché, but instead make him one of the most sympathetic and tender characters in this big-hearted endeavor.
Song has crafted a movie that brilliantly captures life’s chaos and confusion. This song addresses some things that did not occur in our lives; even though we almost expected they might occur, we can still be pleased that our lives went exactly where they needed to go. It is impressive that song tackles these complex and sensitive topics with the level of care and consideration that she does for her first feature film.
The concept of regret isn’t necessarily central to Past Lives; rather, the focus is on coming to terms with the fact that the decisions we’ve made in our lives thus far have been the right ones, as well as the maturation that has caused our wants and passions to shift throughout our lifetimes. Song accomplishes this by using a pretty quiet, reserved plot in every shot (Song collaborates with Small Axe cinematographer Shabier Kirchner here).
At the same time, she tackles issues that would be challenging for even an established and seasoned filmmaker to do justice to on screen. Celine Song is quickly becoming one of the most intriguing new filmmakers of the future, and watching Past Lives is the film that will get you there first.
This story of the Past and the present, and what it implies for the future, is a skillfully handled story delivered with love and passion by song. The effort that the song has done in this regard is outstanding. In a movie that you won’t want to leave and that will stick with you for a long time afterward, Greta Lee, Yoo Teo, and John Magaro make an incredible trio of performances.
Each of them hits on a different and important perspective on this story, and together they create a film you won’t want to leave. It’s not simply the best picture that was shown at the Sundance Film Festival this year; Past Lives is also likely to be remembered as one of the best films released in 2023.