Past Lives – Film Review


Some people enter our lives and leave such a profound impact decades later. Past Lives is that mesmerising, soulful directorial debut to capture acutely this sense of longing, yearning and dissatisfaction within life and love amongst cultural changes. Past Lives is as beautiful as it is poignant in depicting a childhood friendship that always seemed on the cusp of transcending to another pre-destined level. Its simple but affecting philosophy of the interaction of our souls with others is impossible to ignore as it expertly builds up emotional investment in Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) from being childhood sweethearts to being torn apart by circumstances beyond their control dictating their fates.


Structured in three chapters spanning a lifetime, Past Lives is an epic, meta portrait of the meaning of our interactions with others and our connections to the past. The film imbues a feeling of intimacy and warmth and is based on director Celine Song’s similar experiences with a childhood friend and immigration.


Thus, Past Lives immerses the audience immediately within the milieu of Nora and Hae Sung’s present lives, whilst seated at a bar, observed from afar and part of an awkward triangle. Their dynamics are intriguing to other observers in the bar, providing a voiceover commentary, reflecting those moments where audiences may also have been curious. The reverse chronology builds up to that moment subtly, exploring the outside pressures that can change our outlook and ultimately our personalities.

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in Past Lives
Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in Past Lives

For Nora, her family decide to emigrate, and being a Korean family, the cultural sacrifices made to belong in a foreign country, such as choosing an English name, are undoubtedly unsettling to witness. Each step to assimilate is akin to an erosion of their own identity in the pursuit of ambition and yet Song is never explicit in her analysis of this aspect. When Nora, at a later stage, describes Hae Sung as being ‘so Korean’, its impact as an intended slight is uncomfortable, with its implicit bias that being culturally authentic may signal inferiority. However, the beauty of Seoul and its traditions are showcased beautifully providing that visual element to that sense of spirituality and being at life’s crossroads.


Throughout Past Lives, Song cleverly draws this distinction between the new and old worlds and provides a balanced socio-economic commentary without taking sides. We are invited to empathise and to root for a predictable conclusion, as rom-coms have taught us to expect. Song delicately navigates the audience beyond the clichéd expectations providing a fresh outlook and insight in to the immigrant experience and the lure of New York, with stunning scenery, and achieving success, no matter the costs. At one stage, Nora mentions having to concentrate on work rather than having lengthy phone calls with Hae Sung, which is a devastating blow. Song’s ability to create such emotional nuance, with long takes and close ups, is admirable.


The Korean concept of In-Yun further accentuates the emotional stakes providing that spiritual connection and hope that the past and meaningful relationships may still have significance in the future. The film’s spirituality provides that sense of meaning beyond our everyday lives that carries more weight. Plus, it emphasises that period of change for interactions and the role of fate connecting people within their past lives over several moments in time.

Greta Lee, John Margaro and Teo Yoo in Past Lives
Greta Lee, John Margaro and Teo Yoo in Past Lives


Past Lives requests that we ponder the meaning of our relationships but facilitates our collective resistance to accept the reality that some friendships are only for a reason, some are for a season but not all have the ability to continue for a lifetime.


Watching an adult friendship fade is an aching sensation, particularly where feelings are unrequited. Past Lives, in several scenes, provides that emotional gut punch as it induces that involuntary self-reflection.


Such is the haunting, simplicity of Past Lives and its multi-layered ability to tug at the heart strings in its quest to provide introspective reflection. It’s a film that will leave you wanting more and feeling a slight wistfulness by its conclusion. Past Lives is a surprisingly affecting, optically poignant film and a truly remarkable debut by Song exercising its simple truths and a heartrending ability to devastate.

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