Movie Review: Past Lives is a revelation, despite a growing skepticism that romance movies are dead in the current streaming era. Every bit of emotion and rekindling romance is only strengthened by a nuanced approach to script and perfect casting. A real highlight of 2023.
Past Lives is the newest movie from director and screenwriter Celine Song, serving as her debut full length feature after a few spins as a playwriter so far this decade. The movie was produced and distributed by A24 and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it felt like the most prolific work at the festival given the nearly unanimous approval from critics in attendance.
There’s a wide net of romance classics from the mid-1990s to early 2000s that Past Lives is riffing on, and it feels genuinely rewarding that the movie feels like a summation of those ideas instead of a hodgepodge reworking of them. It’s been noted quite often in reviews of Past Lives that the Before Trilogy seems like a significant inspiration for it, and it feels almost too easy to make the comparison right from the jump.
There are multiple time jumps to Past Lives, each involving important moments in the connected lives of Nora and Hae Sung (Greta Lee and Yoo Teo). The opening section of the movie portrays the two as young classmates inseparable until they have to split while walking home late each night. If you know nothing about the movie beforehand, you’d be shocked they don’t stay together as young sweethearts and grow old as a married couple, but that possibility is broken when Nora’s family chooses to emigrate from South Korea to Toronto, where Nora fantasizes about winning awards as an acclaimed writer when she grows up.
The two don’t communicate for years as Nora eventually moves to New York City, while Hae Sung serves his mandatory military duties for the South Korean army. It’s at this point in the movie that Past Lives takes its first time jump, moving twelve years forward where Nora catches a comment on Facebook while innocently scrolling through – Hae Sung is looking for her and wants to reconnect.
It’s rare to see a movie like Past Lives feel so emotionally daring and perfectly in-tune with its own ideas, especially in these opening moments. Celine Song has a few years of experience writing plays at this point, but nothing that could’ve pointed towards such a spellbinding debut feature, one that simultaneously transports you to a space of childhood reimagination, while keeping its own roots firmly in the ground; reconciling years of past relationships while also consistently focusing on the future.
The two rekindle their friendship through a montage of Skype meetings, each becoming more and more personal than the last. They daydream about visiting each other, while also feeling like larger and larger pillars in each other’s daily lives. This comes to a point for Nora where she feels overwhelmed – that trying to balance her own future with this imaginative overseas relationship just isn’t sustainable. The two stop messaging, and Nora moves on to an artist’s retreat.
She eventually meets a fellow writer named Arthur (John Magaro) and introduces him to Korean concept of “in-yeon,” where if you meet someone, even in the smallest fashion, that you also met them in a past life, and that people in love are those that met in past lives over and over and over again. It’s the sort of romanticism that Past Lives frequently indulges in while never becoming melodramatic or dreamlike. There’s a spirituality to the movie that never feels too overwhelming.
After another twelve year time jump, we learn that Nora and Arthur have married and are living together in New York. Nora is a successful playwright and Arthur writes books. Hae Sung pulls the trigger on visiting New York, although he tells Nora it’s for a vacation and not specifically to visit her. This seems like a ridiculous and audacious premise on paper, but Celine Song handles it with such grace and class, penning dialogue that confirms that the character’s within Past Lives recognizes how weird it is.
There’s a specific scene in the movie where Nora and Arthur are in bed, and Arthur asks Nora if he’s helped fulfill the life that she hoped for herself when she was younger. She notes that the question is silly and that she wasn’t committed to a certain future life at that age. Arthur wonders if he is a roadblock to the perfect love story between Nora and Hae Sung, as well as if he brightens Nora’s world the same way she does to his.
I felt this to be the most gratifying section of Past Lives, where the movie amplifies these ideas of personal ambition and romantic ambiguity. There’s so much nuance to Celine Song’s approach throughout each interaction between the three characters in the movie that it feels like the weight of the world is sitting on each line delivery.
The same can be said for the climax of the movie, when Hae Sung meets Arthur and the three of them go out for supper, and eventually end up at a local bar. Nora attempts to translate between the two of them, but the conversation grows much deeper as Hae Sung communicates how he actually feels to Nora – questioning who they might’ve been in their past lives and what would’ve happened if she never left Korea.
Let me tell you, I was shattered at this point. I don’t care how many plays Celine Song wrote before conceiving of Past Lives, but nothing prepares you to write dialogue quite like what frequently is delivered in this movie. The screenplay is the best I’ve seen in 2023 so far, and it’s going to be difficult to top as the year rolls on.
It all helps when each of the three leading cast members of Past Lives gel so effortlessly together. Greta Lee and Yoo Teo have an inherent connection that you feel from their very first interaction, even if most of the first half of the movie consists of them chatting over video calls. The movie beautifully portrays their own comfort in one another as they quickly rekindle their friendship after the first awkward call.
And I was surprised how involved John Magaro was in the movie as Arthur once he’s introduced. I felt the movie worked best when navigating the three of their lives simultaneously. The conversation I mentioned before between Nora and Arthur felt like the moment Past Lives elevated to an even higher level.
Quite frankly, I loved it. I haven’t seen a movie like it in a while, and one that uses common tropes so effectively and uniquely. Past Lives is sharp and shockingly self-aware, knowing its own absurdity and using that to its own advantage. Certainly one of my favorites this year and one I can’t wait to see again.
Past Lives is available to see in theaters now
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Past Lives Cast and Credits
Greta Lee as Nora
Yoo Teo as Hae Sung
John Magaro as Arthur
Director: Celine Song
Writer: Celine Song
Cinematography: Shabier Kirchner
Editor: Keith Fraase
Composer: Daniel Rossen
Past Lives movie on Letterboxd
Past Lives movie on IMDb