Sundance 2023 Review - Past Lives
Childhood friends Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) are torn apart when Nora's family immigrates from South Korea to North America. Twelve years later they reconnect, but the timing just doesn't feel right since Nora's life and goals are in New York and Hae Sung has plans elsewhere. Can the two connect again? Is there a future for these star-crossed lovers? Past Lives explores the pair's fateful meetings and partings at three different points throughout their lives, and how their choices would shape each other's destinies.
From the very first scene of Past Lives, we immediately know we're about to see something special. From a distance, another couple speculates on the lives and relationships of our protagonists. Who are they, and what are they to each other? There's a closeness and chemistry that can't be denied, yet there's a mystery too. Immediately after that scene, we are taken back to the beginning of Nora and Hae Sung's story to witness it all unfold. Throughout the film, we learn how we got to where we are and witness the journey these relationships went through. It's a common framing device, but feels so fresh and perfectly executed here. Every missed opportunity is a knife to the audience's heart.
Comparisons to the Before trilogy are inevitable for Past Lives, and while it similarly checks in on characters at different points in their lives who missed the opportunity at love, Past Lives has a different energy to it. Past Lives is less about the intellectual connection the two have than the unspoken love and yearning that's been there all along and has just become a part of them. It's about Nora completely leaving one life and fate for another and who she would have been if she hadn't. It's as much about abandoning her heritage as it is about leaving her potential love and there's very much a Korean folktale feel about their story.
The casting of Past Lives is pitch-perfect. Greta Lee is particularly incredible here and her chemistry with Teo Yoo, both through a computer screen and in person, is so lovely. They're like two magnets that can't help but be drawn to one another. Unlike many romance films with obstacles in the lovers' way, Past Lives stands apart because it actually humanizes one of these barriers. John Magaro's neurotic Arthur isn't an expendable 2D character as seen in countless romantic comedies, he feels like a real person in a committed relationship who loves their partner--which makes the situation all the more impossible.
Past Lives is an achingly beautiful and wistful story of love and regret--about the chances we don't take and how they can haunt us. There's an evocative shot that closes out their childhood story--of separate paths laid out in front of two souls who long to be together, yet the two reluctantly and slowly go their separate ways. It stays with you and constantly makes you wonder about all that could have been. Such are the fortunes of Nora and Hae Sung; forced to always play those moments in their minds. Past Lives is an assured triumph from first-time writer-director Celine Song and is already bound to remain one of the year's best films by the time December rolls around again. When it comes out, see it as soon as you can.