Past Lives tells the story of Nora (Greta Lee), a South Korean kid who migrates to the West with her family. Now an adult and happily married to Arthur (John Magaro), she is reunited with her childhood friend Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) when he visits New York City.
The Beardict: 9 out of 10. Past Lives is a lovely A24 film that is worth the hype. Neither abstract nor complicated, this indie masterpiece from writer-director Celine Song is just relatable to its core. It does not rely on quirky characters or shocking plot twists. Emotions are intense but nobody is yelling or doing over-the-top gestures. Instead, we get layers and layers of introspection and characters being honest with their feelings. Past Lives demonstrates how wholesome and healthy people can still be quite sad.
*contains very minor spoilers*
The film is a statement on how difficult life can be, because of the decisions we make and the decisions made for us. Physical distance is something hard to overcome, but so is the distance that grows between two people because of what they want to accomplish. For my friends who like memes, Past Lives is basically an exquisite interpretation of the saying “It Do Be Like That Sometimes.” Things happen and we make the most out of our situation.
It’s vital how Past Lives leans into its Korean roots. Here, I’m not just talking about the discussion of “in-yun” or providence/destiny (although that is a wonderful inclusion), but about the juxtaposition of the paths Nora and Hae Sung took as they grew up. Na-Young changed her name to Nora and had to live a life of adjustment in Canada, which made her more independent. On the other hand, adult Hae Sung still lived with his parents and was repeatedly shown eating samgyupsal with his friends. Essentially, Hae Sung belonged in his original environment while Nora stuck out, which demonstrates how the years have made the once very aligned childhood friends drift apart.
At one point, Nora mentions Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) to Hae Sung, and we can see him watching the Michel Gondry film in the next scene. It makes perfect sense that ESOTSM is mentioned, since it not only portrays one of the most unique love stories in modern cinema but also explores similar themes as Past Lives. However, while ESOTSM is brilliant, it also feels heavy and toxic. Past Lives doesn’t feel toxic at all, and so there is nothing that distracts us from the gut punch of raw sadness and longing that it exudes.
Past Lives is very character-driven. Accompanied by spot-on cinematography and a fitting musical score, we as an audience are allowed access to the interactions of Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur with each other. We feel really close to them, so we hold our collective breath and hope that all of these likeable individuals will be alright in the end.
If there’s a main lesson here, then it’s about how closure is something everyone needs but not everyone gets. Give it, if you can.
Photos courtesy of A24. Past Lives, now showing in cinemas near you (such as Cinema Nova in Carlton, where I watched!)