REVIEW: Past Lives (2023, dir. Celine Song)

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 106 mins

UK Distributor: StudioCanal

REVIEWED DURING SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: LONDON

WHO’S IN PAST LIVES?

Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Yoon Ji-hye, Choi Won-young, Ahn Min-young, Jonica T. Gibbs, Emily Cass McDonnell, Federico Rodriguez, Conrad Schott, Kristen Sieh, Moon Seung-ah, Yim Seung-min

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Celine Song (director, writer), David Hinojosa, Pamela Koffler and Christine Vachon (producers), Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen (composers), Shabier Kirchner (cinematographer), Keith Fraase (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

Two childhood friends (Lee and Yoo) are reunited as adults…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON PAST LIVES?

In-yeon”, as a character describes in writer-director Celine Song’s exemplary debut feature Past Lives, is a Korean concept which suggests that people we meet or pass by were perhaps important to us in previous incarnations, and that the people we eventually latch onto were also ones we loved over and over again and will continue to love in the next lives. It is such a simple yet completely touching idea, one that lends a sense of hope but also a tinge of sadness to any hopeless romantics out there, as well as affirmation for couples who believe they were always destined to be together.

The concept is the core of Song’s film, which explores what it is to love and then let life get in the way of it, but doing so in a way that takes you on this profound journey of emotion where you’re feeling happy, sad, comical, regretful et al without feeling manipulative or cheap. Any and all emotional reaction from this film is purely voluntary, and I’ll admit there were a couple of times when even I was on the verge of tears, largely from how beautifully composed this movie is.

Past Lives spans twenty-four years, beginning in South Korea where twelve-year-old Na Young (Moon Seung-ah) is smitten by her classmate Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim), but is forced to leave him behind when her family migrates to Canada, where she adopts the English name Nora. Twelve years later, Nora (Greta Lee) is an aspiring playwright studying in New York, while Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) is fresh out of military service and determining his own path, and the two of them briefly reconnect online before, once again, going their separate ways. Flash-forward to another twelve years, and Nora is now married to fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro), but when Hae Sung travels over to New York, seemingly just on holiday, he and Nora finally reunite in person and determine what kind of relationship they have all these years later.

Aside from a very brief prologue, the film is told in chronological order, which is a structure I personally prefer when it comes to multi-year narratives like this one, but here it really makes the drama and central romance feel so much more powerful and thematically profound. The growth and maturity is noticeable in these two people as time goes by, but whenever they interact as adults you can still spot remnants of the lovesick children that they once were back in South Korea, to where one of them professes their goal to one day win a Pulitzer (it was previously the Nobel Prize) like how a young kid says they wants to be an astronaut or even a dinosaur when they grow up. Song makes it clear that these two characters, who met and fell in love as children, initially tend to slip back into their childish ways whenever they’re together, and the chronological structure allows you to see the exact time and place where their short-lived childhood romance came to a thudding stop, which is also where their connection apparently never left either.

However, the passage of time eventually wears out their remaining childishness, as it does in most of us, and a large chunk of Past Lives is dedicated to both of them recognising how they are in fact far different from the idealistic and impressionable kids they originally were. Na Young starts off as this somewhat ambitious student who cries when she doesn’t come first in a class test, but it isn’t until she becomes Nora that she begins to settle for a much more ordinary life than she previously imagined for herself, with a caring and loving husband in John Magaro’s Arthur (who has an extraordinarily touching monologue that will almost break your heart) that keeps her reasonably grounded. Hae Sung, meanwhile, isn’t quite as fortunate; having remained in South Korea, he has become a man of tradition, still living with his parents in his twenties (a common practise in the country), regularly going out to get drunk with his friends, and fearing that his lack of financial stability is preventing him from moving forward in his own relationships. He fears being ordinary, while Nora has embraced it; both, in their own ways, revolve around ordinariness, and Song once again shows with strong efficiency how their evolution as people with new goals and desires has further altered their compatibility due to what they separately believe is to be ordinary.

But how does in-yeon factor in to show how, despite their current lives taking wildly different directions, these two souls are destined for each other in previous or future ones? The answer that Song provides is euphorically ambiguous, for it mercifully never shows their past/future incarnations (if any), nor does it do a Sliding Doors and show alternate versions of what life would be like if Na Young stayed in Korea with Hae Sung. The focus is purely on the present, where it hardly matters if these souls were or will be together, for they’re just trying to live their own lives while every now and then crossing paths with one another, which Song treats with such a quietly rousing embrace that leaves the viewer with a greater appreciation for the life they may be currently living. At the same time, you really do feel the connection between these characters because they are written to be incredibly nuanced and wise while at the same time uncertain about their own directions in life, and the central performances by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo are excellent in how subtle and refreshingly unshowy they are at giving them real human depth without feeling in any way forced.

In its own way, in-yeon serves as a construct for Nora and Hae Sung to keep their connection alive, even when life as they know it is doing everything within its power to ensure that they cannot walk hand-in-hand into the sunset together. It also provides some much-needed hope for them as they come to terms with their current lives not being quite as exciting as the ones they may have previously lived, but also for the audience who, after seeing what is undoubtedly one of the best romantic dramas to come out in a long, long time, might be inspired to look deeper within themselves and the relationships they have with their own loved ones, and see if in-yeon has worked its magic on them in their own past lives as well.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Past Lives is an exemplary romantic drama, and an absolute cracker of a debut feature for writer-director Celine Song, who provides plenty of thoughtful commentary on love, life, and the relationship between the two while still impressing with a simple yet deeply complex love story that will warm your heart in all the right places.

Past Lives is showing in cinemas from Friday 8th September 2023

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