If you go in expecting the usual happy ending where the guy gets the girl and they live happily ever after, then Past Lives will be a bit of a disappointment. Sometimes, two people who may be perfect for one another don’t find a way to make their love a reality with many different factors to be the cause – long distance, timing, emotional unavailability, chemistry, being career focused, etc.… All of which can be found in writer-director Celine Song’s Heartwreching directorial debut that takes the human condition and peels back the layers of depth that make us who we are, telling a story we all can offer a shared experience on.
Spanning the course of 24 years, Past Lives introduces us to Na Young (Seung Ah Moon as the younger Na, Greta Lee as the older version known as Nora) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim as the younger Hae, Teo Yoo as the older version), two 12 year old friends living in Seoul, South Korea. Na Young’s family is set to immigrate to Toronto, leaving her friend who she sees as a potential life partner one day for good, thus closing a chapter and posing the age old question what if? What if Na Young doesn’t move across the globe, do the two friends get closer, date, get married and eventually grow old together? The possibilities are endlessly explored throughout Song’s screenplay and the decades spanning story.
12 years pass, Hae Sung, after serving his mandatory military service, finds Na Young on Facebook, hoping to reconnect with his childhood friend. As the two skype each other regularly, it’s as if time hasn’t passed at all, leaving the two to pick up right where they left off, back in Seoul when the only worry the two had was who was top of their class. But all the factors I mention earlier come into play, distance and time zones being the big hiccups despite the collective effort the two are giving one another. Though you can anticipate their relationship hitting a brick wall, Song easily fills her script with enough hope that her characters will take the leap and reunite.
And then you remember the opening of the film said 24 years ago.
All the momentum, the catching up, the effort and time is wasted when the two somewhat mutually decide to take a “break” for a little bit. “It’s not you, it’s me” can be echoed without one of them explicitly saying it. Time doesn’t stop moving forward and that little bit of time quickly turns into another 12 years and life changes for both in different ways. For Nora, she meets her eventual husband Arthur (John Magaro) at a writers retreat and the two happily live in an overpriced apartment in the East Village of Manhattan. Hae Sung still lives in South Korea and just breaks up with his girlfriend, planning a trip to New York, finally.
Before the second time jump, when Nora and Arthur meet and fall in love, she tells him about in-Yun, translated to providence or fate which becomes the foundation for Nora and Hae’s relationship. As the story progresses through time, Song handles her characters with caution, tip-toeing a fine line between doing whats right, honoring commitment and acting on impulse and convenience. While Hae Sung is in New York both Nora and Arthur share a profound conversation. Arthur fears Nora is only with him for a green card, fearing she will leave him because he doesn’t fit into her culture. He’s on the outside looking into this one in a lifetime connection Nora and Hae have, feeling like he’s just a chapter in someone else’s love story. It’s one of the many intimate moments that you feel you shouldn’t be a part of, but you understand every thought and explanation.
After its 106 minute runtime ends, Past Lives will leave you in an emotionally fragile state of mind, with its characters and their journeys staying with you, reminding you of your own lives and lost loves, wondering if you were the chapter in someone’s else’s story or the long lost soulmate that didn’t work out or the one who got away.
For every conversation, every interaction, Song adds a line or two of dialogue suggesting that the story will go one way but leaves it to her characters intelligence to think with a sound mind. While that happens, Song has your undivided attention, never wanting to miss a moment, hanging on every word spoken that may change the course of 3 people’s lives. There are plenty of moments between the trio that is rooted to the human condition, relying on honest thoughts and feelings to keep the story centered.
Both Greta Lee and Teo Yoo get lost in their characters. Their chemistry together is unmatched, making the sexual tension and anticipation that much more poignant within the theme of fate. Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner places the camera in unusual yet simple positions to capture these piercing glances as if from a strangers perspective but Lee and Yoo’s connection make for the viewer to be sucked into the intimacy. So much is said without dialogue, a wry smile and a glace says more than words can. Every shot selection has a purpose – whether it’s to show the different paths these characters are on or to keep them close even when they are thousands of miles away.
One of Past Lives strengths lives within the details. Song’s characters are ordinary everyday people, going through an extraordinary, life-altering time. And at any point, each characters experience can be understood fully – the shoes they walk in fit many sizes. Past Lives is a devastating yet astoundingly tender story of human beings navigating the complexities of life. Where we start, go and end up can change in the blink of an eye and its Celine Song who most likely puts her own life experiences into the heart and soul of her characters. Without the typical happy ending, comes a happier one – closure. By the final tracking shot and frame, you feel the weight get lifted and acceptance start to sink in. Past Lives needs to be seen by anyone and everyone who has loved and been heartbroken.
Screenplay By: Celine Song
Directed By: Celine Song
Music By: Christopher Bear & Daniel Rossen
Cinematography: Shabier Kirchner
Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo & John Magaro
Edited By: Keith Fraase
Release Date: June 2, 2023
Running Time: 1 Hour 46 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%