Review: Celine Song’s ‘Past Lives’ Lyrically Looks At Love
South Korean-Canadian filmmaker Celine Song is gaining praise for her lost opps romance Past Lives (2023). The atmospheric dramedy was named Best Indie at the Hollywood Critics Association Midseason Film Awards and recently earned Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Performance by an Actress (Greta Lee) in a Motion Picture – Drama, and Best Performance by an Actor (Teo Yoo) in a Motion Picture – Drama.
Lee and Yoo also nabbed acting nominations from the Film Independent Spirit Awards, where Past Lives dominates the race with additional nods for Song’s direction and screenplay as well as for Best Feature. In other words, Past Lives is on its way to Oscar’s Red Carpet.
Song’s semi-autobiographical story cleverly opens from the point of view of two unseen strangers who are trying to figure out the relationship between a woman and two men talking at a bar. The trio’s conversation cannot be heard, just the summations of the peepers who eventually agree the three must be work buddies.
The film then flashes back 24 years to South Korea where a young tween named Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) must bid adieu to her crush Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) before she and her family emigrate to Toronto. Thanks to Song’s direction and Shabier Kirchner’s 35 mm cinematography, the visuals poetically foreshadow the separate journeys the two characters will take.
Twelve years later, the long lost friends find each other online. Now named Nora, the college-aged Na Young (Lee) is studying in New York to become a playwright while a grown Hae Sung (Yoo) is an engineering student in Seoul. He’s just completed his mandatory military service and plans to learn Mandarin in China. The fact that he’d rather do that than move to the States to learn English causes Nora to break off their correspondence.
Her decision to end their video chats may come as a relief to viewers since this is the weakest part of the movie. Watching the two moon over one another on Skype without having much to say gets old fast. Fortunately, the plot picks up when Nora meets budding author Arthur Zaturansky (John Magaro) at a writers’ retreat on Long Island.
She tells him about “inyun” — a Buddhist theory that says two souls who share past lives with each other will continue to connect over and over through time. Nora uses this sentiment to seduce Arthur while apprising the audience of her relationship with Hae Sung who, unbeknownst to her, begins dating.
After another 12 years, Nora is living in current-day New York City with her husband Arthur when Hae Sung reaches out again. Now that he’s single, he’s planning a visit to the Big Apple and wants to see her. Once he arrives, the friends exchange blank gazes and small talk as they catch up during an awkward afternoon of sightseeing. More interesting are the ways in which their reunion affects the dynamic between Nora and Arthur, and Arthur and Hae Sung.
When the three go out for drinks, the movie returns to its opening scene. The trio are not co-workers as their observers assumed. They’re complex people trying to politely deal with the fragility of love, knowing someone is going to have a broken heart. Without grandiose gestures or melodramatic speeches, the three subtly convey their overlapping feelings of sadness, gladness, and respect.
This is what the film has been building up to and is by far the most fascinating, suspenseful and bittersweet part of the story. What wasn’t said in previous scenes makes more sense as a slow burn sinks in with the characters and audience.
Past Lives is recommended and can be streamed on Vudu and Prime Video.