Past Lives – A Review


By Vanessa Huang

It’s the stuff of late-night contemplation – the kind of restless fixation that gnaws at you once the world goes quiet and you’re left alone with your thoughts. 

What if? 

What if I made a different choice? What if I hadn’t stayed – or what if I had never left? The overwhelm of everyday life is often enough to keep us occupied; years can slip by on autopilot. But for Past Lives’ endearing protagonist, Nora (Greta Lee), these nagging thoughts are impossible to shake – especially when someone she thought was ancient history comes barrelling back into her world, an agonising reminder of what could have been. 

It feels true to writer and director Celine Song’s origins as a playwright that the film finds its structure in a triptych, beginning when Nora is still a twelve-year-old named Na-young in Seoul. She has a crush on her classmate, Hae-sung, and their parents organise a chaperoned “date” for them. But any blossoming childhood romance is cut short rather unceremoniously as Nora and her family immigrate to Canada, and coming of age coupled with assimilation draw the two apart. 

That is, until Hae-sung (Teo Yoo) finds her on Facebook twelve years later. Na-young is now twentysomething Nora, and the tranquil hilly neighbourhoods of Seoul have given way to the bustling metropolis of New York, where Nora tries to make her way as a budding young playwright. Time zones and glitching Skype calls be damned, the two fall back into a comfortable friendship, sharing mealtimes and film recommendations. But neither of them can take their relationship any further – and their correspondence ends as abruptly as it began.

Fast forward another twelve years and Nora is a bona fide writer, living in domestic bliss with fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro), when Hae-sung, completely out of the blue, tells her he’s coming to New York. Their meeting, tinged with a residual childhood awkwardness, reminds Nora of how Korean Hae-sung is – and how “so not Korean” she feels next to him. Perhaps any romance with Hae-sung plays second fiddle to a different kind of yearning, one for the young girl that had never left Seoul. When being an immigrant often means straddling two worlds and never quite feeling at one with either, Hae-sung’s presence is seemingly the closest representation of what once was home. 

On a cursory viewing, Past Lives would be easy to chalk up to an imitation of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy with its easy walk-and-talk through urban locales, or of Everything Everywhere All At Once as a meditation on what-ifs and destiny through the lens of immigration. And yet it’s hardly deferential to its thematic predecessors – Song’s writerly instincts tend towards spareness and silence, and evoke a spellbinding constellation of emotions within a threadbare plot. 

Equally astonishing is how undeniably cinematic the film is, coming from a first-time filmmaker without even a short film under her belt – a testament to the dreamy city-as-character shots from cinematographer Shabier Kirchner. Lee and Yoo fill these frames with wordless longing, the tiniest of microexpressions betraying an unspeakable melancholy, just as the light-footed score from Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen swells with the aches and tugs of a love story that transcends distance and time. 

Past Lives is the type of film to yank you out of the tedium, a profound emotional excavation awakening feelings that have perhaps long laid dormant in our world-weary souls. As a romance, it’s grand and epic in its modesty, speaking to the universal through the specific by mining Song’s own memories of meeting again with her childhood sweetheart and illuminating them in gorgeously rendered technicolour. 

In their ruminations on soulmates, Nora and Hae-sung each invoke the Korean belief in “in-yun,” where ships passing in the night aren’t just so – every interaction is a minor miracle, a sign of intertwining destinies stretching across the chain of all our past lives. Shrugged off in youth, it’s the kind of thing we gradually cling to as a salve for the pains of rootlessness. 

And this might just be the allure of religion – even for the sceptics. Maybe it’s easier to live through the chaos when you’re armed with the reassurance that wherever you are is where you were meant to be. The rest of us have to make peace with the fact that living a life of endless possibilities means something of a bittersweet resignation – mourning not just the people that we left behind, but also the versions of ourselves that never came to fruition. “When you leave something behind, you gain something too,” says Nora’s mother of their family’s move to Canada. And onwards we must go.

Vanessa reviews a tender debut film about long-lost love


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