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'Past Lives' Review

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June 16, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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One of the great things about cinema is that you can give the same idea to a dozen different filmmakers and get a dozen different results. A little over a year ago, A24 was dominating the critical and commercial landscape with Everything Everywhere All at Once. The Daniels’ wildly imaginative multiversal action-comedy resonated with so many (and took home a modern-day record of seven Academy Awards) because of its perfect mix of zaniness and down-to-earth tackling of topics such as “How did I get to where I am?” and “What could my life look like if I had done something differently?” Proving that snowflake cinema theory, writer/director Celine Song has taken those same themes and made something totally different for her debut feature film, Past Lives, which A24 is rolling out into theaters now after overwhelmingly successful showings at this year’s Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals.

No matter if it was doomed from the start or received a storybook ending, everyone remembers their first love. For Na Young and Hae Sung, it seemed like they were destined for each other. Both were overachievers at their South Korean middle school, constantly battling to avoid the dreaded runner-up position below the other. Even as children, they and their parents could see that there was something special between them, almost as if they could see into each other’s souls. Unfortunately, that indescribable bond couldn’t overcome everything, as Na Young and her family immigrated to Canada, severing the relationship right then and there.

A dozen years pass before they enter each other’s lives again, this time through Skype as Na Young (Greta Lee), now named Nora, lives in New York, and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) still resides in Seoul. It’s obvious to both of them that that bond still exists, but neither can make the leap above the “we should” level (“We should visit each other,” “We should stay in touch more…”). A dozen more years go by in the blink of an eye. Nora is now married to Arthur (John Magaro), and Hae Sung is coming to visit New York. What will happen when the two childhood sweethearts come face-to-face for the first time in two decades, and how will it affect the life they’ve each built for themselves over that time?

The film opens with an observational shot from across a bar as Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur sit and talk. Two unseen patrons try to guess what the dynamic of this triangle is. Eventually, the camera pushes in on Nora, with her staring right back at the questioners and us. She smiles, for only she knows the answer. Perspective and perception are the keys to Song’s screenplay, which uses a vast amount of space and time to tell an epically intimate story. There are two versions for each of these characters: the concept that is seen through the eyes of others, and the more version that is only seen by the camera. Shabier Kirchner stunningly photographs each scene, with your eye being effortlessly guided through each absorbing frame.

For all its gentleness around the nature of love and destiny, Song instills a sense of tension around the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Nora and Hae Sung. They often stare at each other longingly, mostly examining how they compare to the version they had in their heads all these years. There’s an open dialogue between them, as well as Nora and Arthur, keeping everything above the usual secrets and lies that go into a romantic drama. The questions and answers are much tougher to come by, simply because there are no do-overs or extreme revelations in real life.

Nora explains in-yun to Arthur midway through the film. It’s the Korean concept of fate, suggesting that people are destined to meet if their past lives overlapped. Nora shrugs off the idea by saying it’s just “something Korean people say to seduce someone.” While Nora may not take that concept to heart, Song’s use of it within her film had me seduced in the moment, and will likely have me for the rest of time.

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