PAST LIVES – Review by Jennifer Green

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If you’ve read anything about Past Lives, you’ve likely heard about the love story at the film’s core or the Korean fate-oriented concept of In-Yun that is woven throughout the tale. The film, which premiered at Sundance and competed in Berlin in 2023, is indeed a quietly powerful story of friendship, love and the winding paths our lives can take. But it is also a story about immigration, of straddling two cultures, and a meditation on the rewards and losses of making more than one country home.

Main character Nora Moon (Greta Lee), formerly Na Young, immigrated with her family to Canada as a 12-year-old. Her personhood is stuck in time for childhood best friend Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who continues to pine for her over the next two decades. The two reconnect, thanks to social media and Skype, but then they abruptly stop their regular long-distance conversations when Nora realizes she’s put her own life in New York on pause because of him. When she does that, they both meet other people, and she gets married. But Hae Sung never seems to get over Nora.

The film forces its characters – and, by extension, viewers – to wonder all the what-ifs. What if Hae Sung had gone to study in the US instead of China? What if Nora’s family had never left Korea? What if Nora hadn’t met or married Arthur? What if she chose Hae Sung instead? You might find yourself asking similar what-ifs about your own past when you leave the theater. That’s the power of writer-director Celine Song’s storytelling.

The US-based, Korean-Canadian Song pulled from her own life to shape this story, and the film is told from an immigrant perspective. Nora doesn’t feel fully Korean, but she left Canada and has had to marry an American to be able to stay in the US, so she’s neither fully Canadian nor fully American either. She’s surprised by how “Korean” Hae Sung is when they meet again as adults, and her husband longs to enter her ‘other’ life when he overhears her speaking Korean in her sleep.

Nora seems to be curious about that other life too. Perhaps surprisingly, Song seems to pick a side, and Korean culture is depicted in subtly negative ways. Hae Sung tells Nora that Korea could never have supported her ambitiousness. Despite his top grades, hard work, degrees and potential, he’s stuck, in his own words, with a mediocre job and a mediocre salary. He regularly stays late with no overtime pay, forced to complete his boss’s work before his own. He still lives with his parents, and he describes himself and his life as “ordinary.”

Actor Yoo embodies all of this admirably. He’s a strapping young man who manages to make himself appear smaller – physically awkward and emotionally vulnerable. A memorable scene sees him standing in a park in khakis, waiting to be reunited with his lifelong crush, shuffling his feet and trying to find a comfortable place for his hands. It’s one of many scenes where Song lets the camera linger on her characters, focusing on their emotions in that moment rather than trying to move quickly through the story.

By contrast to Yoo, tiny Greta Lee is a giant in this film. Lee infuses Nora with determination, confidence and carefree energy. It seems the only time she stops to consider the alternative paths her life could have taken is when Hae Sung reappears. (This could undermine the idea that she might be an award-worthy playwright, but then again, her husband has penned a book titled “Boner.”) You completely understand why two men are spellbound by her, and you also empathize with her choices and resulting feelings in the film’s emotional ending.

It’s hard not to also sympathize with her husband Arthur (John Magaro, in another subtly powerful performance), who seems to sense he may be more in love with his wife than she with him. His sweet patience with her pays off, but we see him suffer as she reconnects with her old friend – and a past and second culture that Arthur cannot be a part of, no matter how much Korean he learns.

Past Lives captures Seoul and New York City as two crowded, concrete urban landscapes – each with its own charms. Hae Sung takes Nora by videochat up a telepheric tram for a panoramic view of the city of her childhood. She takes him on a ferry around Ellis Island and to a waterfront park with a glass-enclosed merry-go-round. To the viewer, these places feel both familiar and new, as they must to the characters. Perhaps they also symbolize how Nora and Hae Sung feel about each other.

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Jennifer Green

Jennifer Green is a regular contributor to Common Sense Media, The Hollywood Reporter, The Seattle Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was Screen International's correspondent in Spain for ten years. She launched the newspaper column and website Films from Afar to curate international films available for home streaming. She has served on film festival juries across Spain and North Africa and teaches journalism and film to university students.