The human concept of a “life well-lived” and living in the moment are critical and salient points of the human experience that we often take for granted. Between being the flashiest on social media, the most crucial person in the room, and accomplishing feats known only to a few humans, we lose track of what aspects of our lives truly have the most impactful meaning. Western cultures don’t often believe that we’ve lived our lives before, that we’re destined to continue someone else’s life. This is the essential thesis of Celine Song’s feature directorial debut in what is probably the finest film of 2023, Past Lives.
As children, Nora (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) are fiercely competitive, to the point where Nora pouts because she took second place to Hae Sung. There is a natural chemistry between the two young actors, such that you feel a romantic interest and the feeling they are destined for one another. Song, who also wrote the screenplay, injects that young love early on as their moms (Ji Hye Yoon, and Min Young Ahn, respectively) look on. Nora’s family is immigrating from Korea to Canada to give their children and film director father (Choi Won-young) a chance to express themselves. As a result, when questioned by her parents, Nora, who chooses that name, and Hae Sung take different paths in their lives.
Yet, their spirits live in chaotic harmony, given the distance. The film spans two additional time frames as Nora and Hae Sung reconnect. Nora, who wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, has started a playwriting career in New York. At the same time, Hae Sung lives the life of an obligatory citizen of Korea, namely, military service and then a job. We do get to experience Hae Sung’s life, setting the stage for the emptiness that prevails upon him to connect with Nora once again randomly. If “obligatory” is an unkind word, it is intended to express that the path his life has taken him is what is expected, a fact that Song represents time and again, both when Hae Sung is with his friends and again in the dialog when Nora and Hae Sung finally catch up in person.
By the time they do, though, Nora has let go of her past and has married John Magaro’s Arthur. Yet, the lives we’ve lived don’t allow us to close doors on the past so quickly and cleanly. Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Tee Yoo) have a deep appreciation and love for each other.
Key to Past Lives’ brilliance is Lee’s and Yoo’s performances; you feel the characters’ complexities, the bond they share, and the life choices, either forced or learned, that have guided their lives. In a culture based on respect and tradition, you can feel both characters living within their confines while expressing themselves. Song sets up the movie from an outsider’s perspective as a voice-over offers a read on a trio sitting at a bar.
Song’s script isn’t the only bit of brilliance in the movie.
Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography is exquisite, and Song knows how to use her camera to brilliant effect, layering the emotional impact with the character’s expressions, bookending their respective life paths. When Nora and Hae Sung part ways at the beginning of Past Lives, Kirchner and Song intentionally set the scene up in front of a literal fork in the road, where Nora goes up a flight of stairs toward her home and Hae Sung has a more flattened path, signaling what is to come. In the end, as they part ways again, this time as adults, Kirchner and Song set the duo against a blue-painted wall with no divergence; a dissonance is realigned, not as lovers but as two souls destined to become good friends.
Arthur, as an outsider to Nora’s and Hae Sung’s lives, is limited, but when Magaro and Lee are together, alone, Past Lives exudes what a dramatic romance should be: tender and understanding, with all of the encumbering dramatics that comes with the past and the future, the ebbs and flows that guide our lives.
Not to be outdone by Kirchner, Keith Fraase’s editing is smooth as we transition from time frame to time frame. A fluidity, echoing the souls parting ways, converging, parting ways, and finally coming to an understanding is efficient and is a vital part of the fabric of Past Lives. Adding to the beautiful complexities Song expresses are Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s score. On a technical level, Past Lives excels.
Celine Song’s Past Lives is a confidently executed film, marked with solid technical ambition and sublime performances from the entire cast, and is highly recommended, especially in a theater.