Past Lives Review

Past Lives
Past Lives
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Novelist Arthur (John Magaro) who is unable to sleep in a small Brooklyn apartment meets his wife, another writer called Nora (Greta Lee). He commented on the good story he had just thought of regarding a quasi-love triangle that did not really end up threatening his marriage – Hae Sung’s sudden re-appearance– Nora’s childhood lover boy from Seoul but who has returned as an attractive thirty-something-year-old man, now living in New York. It would be perhaps best for screenwriters to avoid writing dialogues that sound like they are complementing the script in which they appear. However, the characters in Celine Song’s screenplay “Past Lives” are not only writers but also look for those who have “good stories” within them.

In any case, Arthur is right. The narrative about Nora and Hae Sung that spans over continents and decades is among such good stories. Furthermore, it is partially based on Song’s life experience: like her protagonist, she is a playwright from Korea whose family moved her to Canada when she was still a child and later in her adult life settled down in America. She too was married to a Jewish author and perhaps spent much time out of touch with one of her classmates or rather someone whom she liked so much at high school according to their press tour during this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Hence, she has crafted a serene contemplation of time, reminiscences, and dispersed longing informed by these personal encounters. Maybe even too tranquil: the most lauded film of 2023 is more lovely than dramatic, gently ironing out all those messy feelings that might kill its dreamy mood or clutter its philosophical points.

The most brilliant move from Song comes first. Past Lives begins magnificently with an opening image that arouses curiosity; voyeuristic close-up shots show Sarah seated alongside Emao both of them having drinks while Arthura quietly photographs them secretly unaware that he is doing it. People who do not know anything about these three try to figure this out the same way as we the audience at that point. The conversation here was so intriguing to many people and everything seemed very ambiguous.

Song then takes us back in time for twenty-four years when Hae Sung and Nora (known then as Na Young) were classmates of twelve in Seoul. They lost touch upon Nora’s relocation but found each other again on Facebook and later Skype around a decade after, during which she went to graduate school in New York City while he served in the Korean military. The song avoids being theatrical through this middle section despite her background in the theater, instead scenes taking place over months are done with montages and intercutting among them showing how things develop between friends from childhood until they eventually grow apart because of the distance separating them both literally and metaphorically. It is a beautifully performed scene where Nora ends their relationship mutually with no apparent future, without any screaming or anger involved just an acceptance arrived at together not necessarily ending shouting match but words said with resignation.

The songbird of yesterday loves to write from within her world. Such is the life of artists like Picasso who say that he imbibes from the best. The artist borrows a lot from the great creative ancestors, Basking Past Lives in their influence. In Song’s love for shiny reflective surfaces and barroom incandescence lies a hint of Hong Kong’s leading filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai; Hae Sung and Nora meet again in their thirties on a subway train where they stand side by side but never touch, an old trick of Wong’s when he signifies unconsummated desire. Similarly, one painful subplot of Edward Yang’s last masterpiece, Yi Yi would also be reminiscent of this trip down memory lane.

At such point as Hae Sung wonders aloud if they were strangers before in another life who met while traveling by train, it is easy to spot Richard Linklater’s famous and heart-rending Before trilogy; probably the most romantic off-on relationships ever written (and filmed) this side of Y2K. That said, Linklater chose to narrate his love story over three separate films released within 18 years in order to keep pace with his characters’ aging process. However, Past Lives has only 106 minutes to cover a much longer period – solidifying into its figures’ lives, while skimming through various incidents happening around them. An instance is the quick brush strokes and snippets of voice-over or body language used so as to allow readers find out what transpires when Nora meets Arthur finally during a writers retreat. Allowing for the entire trajectory of time seems impossible with standard movie length anyway though moving at lightspeed typically cuts large holes through our hearts–so many yesterdays wasted.

Both actors do their best not to play up on young adult emotional confusion during changeover times whilst still showing these changes subtly; Yoo makes him more vulnerable while Lee articulates how she became over the years. She goes through a long transition; he doesn’t. It’s like the writer is in love with an ex-boyfriend who can’t get over her, and she knows it. In fact, if you think that you took more than one year to regain your senses, what if your ex-lover has been thinking about you all this time? On the other hand, Nora sees Hae Sung as a walking and talking rendition of her Korean displacement story. Implying that she is using him as an excuse to comfort herself for leaving Korea would be more appropriate here because he represents the life she used to have –that’s real nostalgia! Would knowing this make the actual individual who inspired Hae Sung a bit irritated?

Most beautifully filmed and edited, some would say, than an average American indie (especially one made by a playwright trying film for the first time instead of the stage), Past lives has never been anything less than pretty in its poetic tranquility. However, towards the end of it all when Hae Sung comes back to New York on holiday where he had come to see Nora again, a viewer might find him or herself craving for more – a silent wish for at least some tension between these characters. When faced with an extraordinary situation everyone demonstrates maturity and emotional intelligence which seems almost not humanly possible. Even Arthur appears only as someone who is theoretically bothered by how much time his wife is spending with her long-lost love; while Magaro in his scruffy bohemian mannerisms is almost doing that Baxter guy from last year’s ultra-low-cost version of a perfect rom-com boyfriend who knows there is something far more romantic in a love story without him. The movie is arguably too sweet just like Arthur. Inquisitive wisdom never allows room for any awkward feelings such as hatred or bitterness.

The Past Lives example appeared as if it was once an anecdote but somehow it became dramatized thus losing some of its sharpness and edges to realize greater points about changing nature over the years. The film feels somewhat pre-digested, particularly in its latter parts where Nora and Hae Sung retell their non-romantic affair using Buddhism’s language reminiscent of parable. What we are probably watching here though could just be “a nice story” told by Nora: sentimental, slick, and bittersweet to taste at times. But there is always this feeling that behind every beautifully composed frame exists another version of these happenings – a better plot – so full of life.


Celine Song’s critically raved Sundance hit recipe for easy success Past Lives easily becomes one of this year’s gentlest and most inhibited Best Picture nominees, following the lives of two children from their days in Korea to their later adulthood as they meet again and again. There is something incredibly captivating about the film’s sad peacefulness; this is a remarkably stylish debut feature with wonderful cinematography and acting by Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, as well as John Magaro. However, at some point in time Past Lives feels like an MFA creative writing exercise that feels purposefully aloof; always avoiding discomfort, Ms Song takes away any messiness that might have come with a real-life anecdote so that it becomes a tone poem almost-romance that is too tranquil in nature. That’s why it is a good movie that will never be anything more than just nice.

Read Past Lives Review on Fmovies

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