Past Lives


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Past Lives
"To say too much about what happens in each episode would be to spoil the joy of encountering Song’s finely worked screenplay, which lets its characters' emotions glitter in the light." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

“You leave something behind but you gain something too,” 12-year-old Na Young - who is soon to gain the new name Nora - is told as her family prepares to emigrate from South Korea to Canada. Celine Song’s immaculately executed and moving drama is all about the tensions between the old and the new and the spaces in between as we check in with Nora at two 12-yearly intervals thereafter.

To what degree we ever truly leave connections behind is openly discussed in Past Lives and it’s a belief Korean’s even have a name for. “In-yun” is the concept of close personal relationships passing through a succession of lifetimes, although potentially manifesting themselves differently, as a friendship or chance meeting in one, a lover or life partner another. In Song’s film these possibilities might not have to wait until the next life, since she shows they could have prospects in this one.

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Right before Nora (played in adulthood by Greta Lee) leaves South Korea, she goes on a sort of date with her classmate Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo as an adult). Song lets us feel the potential from a child’s perspective, when first crush is all consuming and goodbyes are the last thing in mind. With the connection interrupted, it’s perhaps no wonder then Nora’s mind strays back to him 12 years later and she Googles him on a whim and discovers that he has actually been looking to reconnect with her on Facebook.

What follows is the sort of long-distance almost romance that will be familiar to many. Hae Sung doesn’t just represent a potential relationship for Nora but also a reminder of what she once called home. The separate paths they took on the way home from school have continued into adulthood - he fresh from national service and she embarked upon what might be considered a ‘third life’ in New York.

To say too much about what happens in each episode would be to spoil the joy of encountering Song’s finely worked screenplay, which lets its characters' emotions glitter in the light. But when we return to Nora’s life 12 year later her Jewish American husband Jewish American Arthur (John Magaro) is also a vibrant presence, fully aware of Hae Sung and about to meet him for the first time. This could be said to be a first for Nora too, as the pair have never physically met since childhood, a situation as full and delicately balanced as a raindrop on a leaf.

Fans of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset trilogy will find a kindred spirit here but by making this a three-hander Song adds an additional dimension, taking time to explore each character's experience. There is a will-they, won’t-they undercurrent here but Song’s humanistic consideration of these relationships is interested in so much more than that. Pauses big and small also pepper Past Lives, which is as much about the spaces in between what is said than the words that fill the silence. This isn’t the romance of a rose on Valentine’s Day but of shared experience and understanding, it's unexpected manoeuvres meshing perfectly with the gently lyrical jazz-inflected soundtrack from Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen. Song’s film is about all the finer filaments of love and friendship that glow in their own way and their own time and she and her cast treat them with respect and in ways which allow us to magnify them for ourselves.

Reviewed on: 12 Sep 2023
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Nora and Hae Sung, two childhood friends, are separated from each other when Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. Two decades later, they are reunited in New York where Nora now lives with her American husband.
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Director: Celine Song

Writer: Celine Song

Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro

Year: 2022

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: US

Streaming on: Netflix

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