Past Lives is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

The first line of writer-director Celine Song's Past Lives is delivered off-screen, in American English, by a random person we never meet. The speaker is sitting in a Manhattan bar at 3:00 A.M., people-watching with her friends, passing the time by making up stories about strangers. The current objects of their speculation—and of Song's camera gaze—are three people: a Korean man and woman, who are talking intensely to each other, and their White male companion, who has been left out of the conversation.

"Who do you think they are to each other?" the speaker wonders.

It is the central question this delicate, devastating debut feature will go on to explore, and there are no simple answers. That's because it is not a simple question. After all, who are any of us to each other? Am I the same person to you that I am to someone else? Am I the same person to you that I am to myself? If you knew me long ago, am I still that person now? Am I obliged to be? How do not just our relationships but our very identities shift and recalibrate, depending on who we are with? What role do we play in each other's stories, and is there a version of me that only exists when I'm with you?

We first meet Na Young and Hae Sung as 12-year-olds in Seoul (played by Moon Seung-ah and Leem Seung-min), sharing the sort of pre-adolescent, proto-romantic relationship that is probably only possible at that age. She's more emotional, a little bossy, and fiercely ambitious; he's quieter, steadier, silently supportive. ("You would stay with me when I was crying," she will fondly remember later.) They are the closest of friends, school rivals, chaste and inarticulate sweethearts, and both they and their families already assume they'll end up together.

(It's the first of many small marvels: how Song establishes this friendship with just a few scenes, and not many more words. And this evocative efficiency is one of the keys to the movie: there is something primal and powerful in such a childhood connection, and we need to feel it. But we also need—for the rest of the film to work—for it not to be too specific or defined. For the rest of the film the friendship will exist for us the way it will exist for them, which is the way many of our own friendships from that age linger: as something vague and elusive, less a memory than the memory of a feeling.)

For, too soon, Na Young's family is moving away, immigrating to Canada. ("If you leave something behind, you gain something too," Na Young's mother tells Hae Sung's mother, posing yet another question the film will quietly interrogate.) The family has chosen English names—Na Young will be "Nora" now—and Nora is mostly excited for the journey to the Americas. ("Koreans don't win the Nobel Prize for Literature," she says.) Walking home from school together for the last time, the children say a brief, clipped goodbye at the intersection of a stairway and an alley, and we watch them go in different directions, their paths in life forever diverging. (Working with cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, Song's framing in this film is exquisite throughout: she has a cinematic eye, but a precision with blocking she no doubt carries from her experience as a playwright and theater director. She tends to hold her shots steady, allowing her actors, not her camera, to move through spaces.)

Leem Seung-min and Moon Seung-ah in PAST LIVES (2023)

From this poignant first act Past Lives will jump forward in time, first 12 years, then 24, to find Nora (Greta Lee), a playwright living in New York, and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), an engineer still living with his family in Seoul, reconnecting, losing touch, and reconnecting again, always separated by distances and differences, but always connected by a long invisible thread neither of them can either shorten or sever.

Both leads are just ridiculously good. This should be a star-making (and awards-nominated) turn for Greta Lee, a mesmerizing actress who simply radiates wry complexity; she makes Nora Moon a smart, vibrant, messy, frequently frustrating character. (She has a lot to work with: Song, who has drawn on her own life here, sketches Nora's life with selective but rich specificity. At 24, Nora has scrawled "WALLET PHONE KEYS" in prominent marker beside the door of her tiny studio apartment, a detail that tells us a lot of what we need to know about her life.) Teo Yoo has what seems to be the simpler, less specific role—Hae Sung could have been just the handsome lovelorn suitor, in another actor's hands—but every single moment of his performance is infused with a thoughtful and haunted vulnerability.

What unfolds between them is an achingly poignant love story in triptych—rather like Richard Linklater's Before trilogy crystalized into a single-movie—which is played with enough sensitivity, humor, and longing to make Past Lives a new romantic classic. (The film's title is drawn—in part—from discussions of the Korean concept of inyun, the notion that even casual encounters between two people are informed by their interactions in a previous incarnation. If you accumulate enough of these interactions through your different lives, Nora explains—8,000, at least—you are destined to be together.)

But the film is much more than a will-they-or-won't-they love story: it is deceptively simple and small in its execution, but grand in its ambitions and obsessions. Beneath the romantic triangle is an insightful exploration of the immigrant experience, and a clever meditation on identity. (At 24, reconnecting over Skype, Nora tells Hae Sung that she now speaks Korean with no one else but him and her mother, and that not even her mother still calls her "Na Young." And at 36, Nora's White husband Arthur [John Magaro] tells her that when she talks in her sleep, she talks in Korean. "You dream in a language I can't understand," he says, recognizing that there is a part of her he can never know. The person she once was—her past life—exists now only with Hae Sung.)

And still beneath that is a wistful but clear-, even hard-eyed study of the universal realities of life itself: the stories we tell ourselves about the choices we've made; the way dreams and ambitions get smaller as we get older; the way we can willfully mistake fate for chance, and vice versa. Nora and Hae Sung represent for each other not just the past, but the people they once wanted to be, the parts of themselves they've lost, and the lives they might have lived. "Some crossings cost more than others," a line from one of Nora's plays reads, and Past Lives is painfully aware that every choice costs something: whatever life we live always comes at the cost of a thousand other lives we might have had.

I've seen Past Lives twice now. In my first viewing—at a preview during the Chicago Critics Film Festival in May—I thought it a beautiful minor work, small but exquisitely rendered, and perhaps efficient to a fault: the characters seemed a little distant, not fully realized, our access to their inner lives a little too limited. On second viewing, however, on its June opening, I found it nearly perfect, my thin criticisms now transformed to a stunned appreciation for the film's subtle but profound strengths. Song's work—both in her writing and her direction—is not limited at all, but surgically and poetically precise: she tells us and shows us exactly as much as we need to know, and no more. She respects her brilliant lead actors, and trusts them to convey years of uncertainty and longing in a quiet glance, an awkward pose, or a few simple lines of dialogue. And she respects her audience, trusting us to fill long silences and narrative ellipses with our own inarticulate longings and regrets.

I am reviewing Past Lives under the umbrella of my "summer movies" marathon, which is patently absurd. It is a film with no car chases, no explosions (not even emotional ones), and definitely no heroes or villains. ("In the story I would be the evil White American husband, standing in the way of destiny," Arthur says—but Song knows that's not the way life really works.) What Past Lives is, instead, is a genuinely great American film that arrives in our multiplexes precisely at the moment we need it most. It's a reminder—and such reminders are growing more rare—that cinema can actually be about people, about the extraordinary drama and humor and romance of ordinary lives. Tiny exchanges become potent with dramatic potential; each 12-year jump lands with the force of a cliffhanger; moments of emotional vulnerability and courageous self-reflection become, in their own way, heroic. Summer movies offer passing pleasures: Past Lives is the kind of art that lasts.

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1 thought on “PAST LIVES (2023)”

  1. I watched this movie (after JOY RIDE, which was from your recommendation and also excellent, I'll leave a comment on that review) tonight and it just… wrecked me. It's alongside Michael Sarnoski's PIG, in terms of poignant debuts that trust their main actors to carry so much unspoken weight and sentiment. And one of my main weeping moments was seeing Hae Sung absorb Nora's request to stop talking for awhile, and Teo Yoo's face, his micro-expressions, registering all the sadness of a separation he intuitively feels won't be just a year's time.

    And that's so terribly tragic, given the first reunion had a very notable disconnect beat in the video chat, which… really says it all, doesn't it. For him, it was temporal, he kept seeing that little girl who left him. For her, it was geographical, she kept seeing a piece of familiar Korea. From the get-go, from the choice to immigrate, maybe even before then, given what Hae Sung brings up about Nora herself, it feels like the two of them would never come together in this life. It had different plans for them.

    And, yeah, the relatively sparser script feels like a strength, in the sense that the actors bring their A-game in imbuing these characters with rich, unspoken depth. Even Magaro, who could've been a disposable husband to add to how Nora and Hae Sung should've gotten together, is acted with a friendly, nervous charm, bolstered by an intelligent script that has him as a decent, receptive, thoughtful man with an understandable chip on his shoulders with this whole scenario.

    I also think it's fascinating how those 12 years timeskips contrast against the gentler pace of Song's day-to-day mundanity shots. Because Arthur mentions how there's a world he can't access with Nora when she dreams in Korean… but Hae Sung hasn't known the world Nora's been suffused in for years, either. In some ways, we're in a similar position to those two men: we don't have access to Nora's world, all of it, only she herself does. We're all in a position of not knowing the totality of another's world. And the steady shots are why that second-last scene HURTS so much to me: seeing them walk together, contrasted against Nora registering, perhaps for the last time, a life with someone that could've been, physically, and breaking down at the enormity of that what-if at the very end of that long shot.

    Just a gutting, painful movie in ways I expected, but never anticipated how badly it'd hurt. Such a smart debut.

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