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PAST LIVES (2023) review

June 15, 2023


written by: Celine Song
produced by: David Hinojosa, Christine Vachon & Pamela Koffler
directed by: Celine Song
rated: PG-13 (for some strong language)
runtime: 106 min.
U.S. release date: June 9, 2023 (select theaters) & June 23, 2023 (wide release)


I believe in love at first site and that it’s possible to have lifelong feelings for someone you perceived as your “first love”. That doesn’t mean you wind up with that person and it also doesn’t mean that if you were to go back in time and follow through and stay with that first love that everything would’ve worked out wonderfully. Nevertheless, the heart reserves a special place, one of tenderness, longing, and curiosity, for that first special someone that somehow either got away or never happened altogether. That place in the heart is true and real and it feels like that’s what writer/director Celine Song is touching on in “Past Lives”, her superb directorial debut that is one the very best films of the year.

The film opens in the interior of a bar as a couple of strangers try to figure out the three figures seated on the other side of the bar. The two strangers are part of the film’s audience, since they are unseen and we can only hear what they say. We are viewing what they see. Song starts out her story in a quiet manner that immediately hooks viewers and inviting them to participate in people watching in much the same way we all do in public places. We’ve all done it many times, sat in a restaurant or a park or a museum (solo or with someone else) and provided our own guesses regarding the lives of others, offering commentary and sometimes dialogue. Are two of them married or are they siblings? Which one is the third wheel? Song knows we do this and in providing such an opening, automatically offers something we can relate to. It will be the first of many relatable elements in “Past Lives”.



As the story unfolds, we’ll learn that the three figures are Nora (Greta Lee), Hae Sung (Yoo Teo) and Arthur (John Magaro), and before we continue with them, Song essentially places a bookmark on the introduction to the three main characters of her story. Later on, we will come back to this scene and it will be more powerful knowing what we’ll come to know.

But first, we’ll travel back in time to twenty-four years prior, where we meet two 12-year-old children that have developed an inseparable albeit unspoken bond. Na Young and Hae Sung attend the same grade school together in South Korea and they can often be found walking home together. Right away, it’s clear that both Na (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) share a connection, with the more confident Nora crushing on the rather shy Hae Sung. When Na’s family makes the decision to emigrate to Toronto, Canada, their connection is abruptly fractured, leaving Hae Sung devastated with neither of them knowing or understanding an appropriate way to say goodbye.

Twelve years pass and we catch up with Na, who now goes by Nora and lives in New York City as a university student and aspiring playwright. Meanwhile, Hae Sung has remained back in Seoul where he’s studying engineering student with his thoughts often frequenting his childhood sweetheart. When Nora finds out through her parents that Haw Sung has asked about her, she decides to search for his online presence and winds up finding him on Facebook and next thing we know the two reconnecting via Skype. It’s awkward at first, since Nora really notices how Korean he is compared to her (due to the amount of time she has spent away from her homeland), but eventually the two relax and settle into comfortable somewhat flirty groove with long conversations over the internet. Weeks and months pass, but eventually reality hits for Nora, when she realizes that neither of them will put their burgeoning careers on hold in order to geographically align themselves. She makes the decision to stop communication for a while.

Another twelve years pass and Nora remains in New York City, specifically the East Village, where she resides with her husband, Arthur (John Magaro), also a writer. The two met one night at a summer writer’s retreat in Montauk and although we’re already rooting for Nora and Hae Sung to somehow reunite, the way in which she and Arthur meet and connect feels undeniable right. Their meet-cute is one of the many great scenes in “Past Lives”, where everything aligns just right – acting, writing, and the splendid cinematography by Shabier Kirchner (who previously worked on Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” five-part anthology series) – but seeing the playfulness that Lee’s Nora navigates their introduction is simply wonderful.



The way in which Nora incorporates the Korean concept of In-Yun into her first conversation with Arthur is clever and humorous. She explains to him that In-Yun suggests that people are destined to meet one another if their souls have overlapped a certain number of times before. When the curious Arthur asks Nora if she truly believes in all that, she slyly replies that it’s just “something Korean people say to seduce someone.” We know where she’s going and we’re just as enraptured as Arthur is.

When we catch up with Hae Sung, he is partaking in another night of food and beverage with his friends back in Seoul. On this particular night, he shares with them that he plans to visit America for the first time, specifically New York City, to get away and have some fun. His friends know the real reason for the trip, just as we do. After so much time has passed, maybe meeting up with Nora in-person will offer some illumination, resolution, or closure…and yes, he knows she’s married. There’s a sense that he feels his story with Nora is left unwritten by both of them and maybe reuniting for the first time since they were twelve will provide some kind of response to his years of longing.

Inevitably, we get back to that scene in the bar, knowing what we know and knowing who those three figures are. Our hearts are fluttering and heavy and our minds are curious, wondering how this is all going to play out. We’re aware of certain melodramatic conventions from other stories, but since none of them are on display in “Past Lives”, it’s anyone’s guess what happens. In this third act, there will definitely be viewers who feel one way or another regarding how they see the film ending and that’s primarily because Song has given these actors material that is so honest and real and so very far removed from what we’ve come to expect. Sure enough, the conclusion makes perfect sense, not just the action of it all, but the spot-on dialogue between Nora and Hae Sung. Song expresses everything beautifully.

The central three characters, how they are written and how they are performed, are absolutely phenomenal in “Past Lives”. That goes for the actors who Nora and Hae Sung as children, but mainly Greta Lee, Yoo Teo, and John Magaro. All three roles are challenging, requiring the actors to navigate complex feelings, responses, and situations. If these actors don’t get some kind of year-end recognition than voters are absolutely obtuse.

In the film, Magaro’s Arthur comically acknowledges that his participation as a third wheel in his wife’s longstanding friendship with Hae Sung could be seen as the “evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.” It’s funny because it’s true, based on past storytelling clichés. The way Mangaro deftly conveys some of the silent responses while being in the presence of Nora and Hae Sung is quite impressive. It’s refreshing the way his character is written, but the way he is realized is quite impressive. There’s a specific bedroom scene between Nora and Arthur that is tremendous and a stellar example of authentic communication free of any eye-rolling tropes. It’s just a wonderful and rare example of real people.



Since the three-act story mostly revolves around the character of Nora and how these two men (one from the past and one from the present) impact her life, casting the role was crucial, especially considering this is semi-autobiographical for Song. “Past Lives” benefits from a pitch-perfect cast. Lee delivers a relaxed, confident, and perceptive performance with a palpable sense of empathy. Whether her scenes are with Teo or Magaro, she knowingly calibrates herself to exactly what the moment needs. It’s a phenomenal performance. As Hae Sung, Teo does a fine job figuring how to convey so much without saying hardly anything. He communicates multitudes in the stillness of his body language or just his quietness in general. Considering what we learn about Hae Sung’s personality, these careful decisions make sense and enhance the richness of the character.

Song’s film feels less about regret or what-if questions and more about acknowledging how important and special that “first love” feeling was and still is, while also feeling a sense of confirmation in the decisions you’ve made that got you to where you’re at in the present. At no point does any of it feel accusatory or dismissive, nor are any of the characters presenting as one way of another. These are people like you and me, with complex feelings, no easy answers, and a yearning to connect. It’s just amazing how Song makes it all work so well.

It’s just as hard not to laugh, smile and/or cry while watching “Past Lives” as it is not be moved and impressed by the feature as a whole. Song and her collaborators, specially composers Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen and editor Keith Fraase, work in a miraculous synchronicity. The fact that this confident, elegant, and intuitive film is a directorial debut is simply uncanny.


RATING: ****





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