Review | Past Lives | 2023

There's something deeply wistful about writer/director Celine Song's debut feature, Past Lives, a decades spanning romance about the chances we take and the ones we don't in both life and love. 

That tangible sense of longing is something films often strive for but rarely achieve, and Song nails it so beautifully on the first try that the effect is almost breathtaking. Centering around a Korean immigrant named Nora (Greta Lee), Past Lives follows her from her days as a schoolgirl in Korea to her life as a successful playwright in New York City 24 years later, checking in on her as she reconnects with her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung (Yoo Teo), first via Skype and then in person as he travels to New York to meet her and her husband, Arthur (John Magaro). Each time it becomes clear that timing is not on their side to forge the relationship they've been flirting with for decades.

Some have compared it to David Lean's Brief Encounter, but for me the most striking comparison is with Richard Linklater's Before Trilogy, condensing decades of two people coming in and out of each other's lives into a heartrending 106 minutes. But what's impressive about it is how it uses that brief runtime to really settle in with these characters, even across its decade-long time jumps. Nora immigrates from Korea with her parents as a 12-year-old, reconnects with her childhood best friend via social media, and eventually moves on with her life, naturally losing touch but never the connection that drew them together in the first place. 

Song's film deals a lot in themes of fate and destiny, but unlike many other films of which that is true, Past Lives feels more honest about the role of time and distance. It's as much about life's "what ifs" as it is about the natural progression of life. Sometimes things just don't work out, and you find someone else you're just as well suited for in the meantime. Through a deeply compassionate lens, Song grapples with those conflicting feelings, of longing for the familiar and dwelling in the "what ifs" vs moving on and living in the present instead of the past. In that way, Past Lives also deals head-on with nostalgia itself, and the place in our lives of things (and people) that we have perhaps outgrown. 

The lovely thing here is that Song takes time to acknowledge the inherent sadness of that without ignoring the beauty of living and loving in the here and now. It's the inherent contradiction of the human condition, missing what we've lost while loving what we have. It's likely that many viewers will find themselves reminded of their Hae Sung, but the beauty of Past Lives is that you may find yourself thinking of your own Arthur too. Song juggles so many tricky and often conflicting emotions, then deftly wraps them in a delicate but devastating package. It's a dreamy, melancholy, and altogether remarkable debut.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

PAST LIVES | Directed by Celine Song | Stars Greta Lee, Yoo Teo, John Magaro, Moon Seung-a | Rated PG-13 for some strong language | Now playing in theaters everywhere.


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