PAST LIVES (Berlinale 2023) – Review by Serena Seghedoni

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A favorite amongst audiences and critics and a strong contender for the Golden Bear at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival is without a doubt Celine Song’s Past Lives, screened in competition after its World Premiere at Sundance and about to be distributed theatrically in the summer by A24. We first meet the film’s protagonist, her name is Na Young (Seung Ah Moon), she’s 12 years old and she lives in South Korea. But her family soon has to emigrate from the country, which means that Nora has to leave her childhood sweetheart/best friend Hae Sung behind and take on not only a new name, but also a new identity.

When we next see her, twelve years later, her name is Nora (Greta Lee) and she lives in New York, where she’s studying to become a playwright. One day, as she’s looking up her childhood friends on social media, she finds Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), and, though her Korean is rusty, the two of them reconnect and begin having regular Skype calls. Knowing that it would be nearly impossible for them to meet anytime soon, Nora eventually decides to take a break from him and focus on her career, and that’s when she meets fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro). Twelve years later, Nora and Arthur are happily married. But their balance is soon disrupted by the arrival of Hae Sung, who’s finally been able to arrange a trip to New York. The two friends meet, realize there is a connection between them, and things become complicated for all three of them.

From there, the film becomes an analysis of the complexities of life and love, which also looks into notions of fate and happiness and offers insight on immigration and cultural identity. Anchored by superb performances from Lee, Yoo and Magaro, Past Lives is a film that constantly subverts our expectations and delicately makes its way into our hearts, with a clever screenplay that has plenty of humor and charm but also unveils life’s most profound truths. It’s astonishing to think that Past Lives is Celine Song’s debut, and we’re certainly going to hear her name again in the future.

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Serena Seghedoni (Archived contributor)

Serena Seghedoni is a film critic, a film studies graduate, and the Editor-in-Chief at Loud and Clear Reviews. She has written a dissertation on Joker and is currently interested in queer stories, films made by women, virtual reality, and the representation of mental health in film and TV.