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‘Past Lives’ review: Director Celine Song’s debut beautifully scans the resonance of lingering love and impediment of fate

Equality captivating and contemplative; Greta Lee and Teo Yoo play two old friends that reconnect after many years.


How’s that old saying go? Ahh, yes – the wrong place at the wrong time. We can tweak this a bit, referring to love. Almost every person has “the one that got away.” You envisioned an entire life with them – crossing from significant milestones to the next. Then, for whatever reason, it doesn’t happen. It could be distance or career choices that caused the separation. Even if you move on and create an entirely fulfilling life – there might always be a lingering ache in that past self, wondering how that connection would have played out.

At first glance, the title of writer-director Celine Song’s vividly beautiful film, Past Lives, you may immediately think of it in a supernatural sense. Specifically, the concept of destiny and past instances of ourselves always being able to find one person no matter the time and space. The Korean theme of In-Yun is spoken about where there’s this belief if the lives of two people have met many times before, they will always find a way toward each other. Past Lives is fully aware of the DNA of how many of these stories have gone. Boy and girl love each other. They split up. They find each other again when they are older and fight against all odds to be together again.

However, the film quietly and meticulously conveys its story of identity through discussions and sometimes sorrowful realizations knowing that wishing something hard enough doesn’t create a storybook ending. Past Lives is told in 12-year increments – in the beginning, there are two kids, Nora (Greta Lee / younger Nora is played by Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo / younger Hae Sung is played by Seung Min Yim). They share a friendship – they use school as a competition and walk each other home. Nora even tells her mother that she will marry Hae Sung someday. As their parents arrange a play date for them together, we learn Nora and her family will soon be immigrating to Canada. In one of the last scenes, the younger versions of these characters share, Hae Sung says “bye,” and their paths separate into two (a recurring motif throughout the film).

Nora herself has an uncanny ambitious streak within her laying the groundwork for what her life will become. Later, she moves from Toronto to New York and becomes a playwright. Hae Sung remains in Seoul, has his friends, and goes into the military – while wondering how Nora is doing. As Nora and her mother reminisce about the people they knew in Seoul, Nora and Hae Sung find each other again (the power of Facebook). They reconnect through many Skype chats even with the 13-hour time difference and reconnect.

Past Lives has a couple of layers to it – while the ghosts of possible love past are omnipresent throughout the entire film, it’s one of a world that only two people can exist in. As Nora gets older, the American way of life integrates into her DNA more. She speaks Korean while talking to Hae Sung, but it’s initially broken. As they have more of these talks and uncover the people they are, the beautiful chemistry of shared culture and experience arises within them. Hae Sung is not the boy Nora remembers.

Even one can tell a palpable connection between Nora and Hae Sung exists; she puts up a wall against any possibility of something between them. Much of it is rooted in the fact Nora has built a life the way she wanted and cannot see a way back to something in the past. This is even more apparent when Nora marries a writer named Arthur (John Magaro) years later – their union evolves from a chance encounter at a creator's retreat. Hae Sung goes through a breakup and decides to visit Nora in New York – something he could not do years prior. From that point evolves a gorgeously haunting third act between these two parties.

Picture being with somebody, and you heard their old sweetheart was coming to town to spend time with them. You wouldn’t exactly be jumping over the moon at that development. Song uses Magaro’s acting as a conduit to express a genuine fear – with acute self-awareness. Arthur realizes in this “story” he is the stereotypical American husband who could keep these two childhood friends from their Disney ending. However, it goes further in that he expresses that Nora and Hae Sung has a world he could never understand.

It’s sad – Past Lives has a congruent feeling of melancholy throughout its narrative. Especially when you consider how well Lee and Yoo play these characters. Lee, as Nora, exudes that she cares, but restraints to show more than that until the film's end. Regarding Yoo’s portrayal of Hae Sung, his emotions are written all over his face and body language. These competing factors will make the audience root for them, but also take a step back and understand this isn’t the lifetime for it to happen.

Reconciliation is not promised in every star-crossed-lover story, and Song is aware of this. Past Lives teaches us that old lovers and friends can often lead us back to a forgotten part of ourselves – even if they aren’t meant to be more than a memory.

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