There isn't anything particularly flashy about playwright Celine Song’s debut feature film, Past Lives. It is a very simple and straightforward story with a sound structure concerning star-crossed lovers that is impressive because of its perceived lack of effort. The ease with which the film appears to pull off its tightrope of emotions would initially signal something lighter and less major; admittedly, this initial feeling made me question not necessarily the significance of the work, but more its weight. Of course, then the final scenes unfold and everything Song has been building to comes crashing down like a tidal wave of emotions and you can't help but to be swept up in them even if you've never experienced something similar in your own life. 

While maybe not the monumental achievement I'd been led to believe it was this line of thinking around preconceived notions and expectations became somewhat critical as I sat watching the film and the idea of how Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) would likely have never seen one another again had they not lived in a modern era with access to social media and Skype. A moment of insight, if not a particularly fresh one, about how much our lives are dictated not by fate but by circumstance was surprisingly striking. This naturally led to me questioning how I might have perceived the film differently if I'd seen it with one of the first audiences at Sundance or even better, without any knowledge of it or its critical reception at all yet I couldn't shake the idea that despite all there is to admire about the craft and execution of the film that this was still being somewhat oversold as a grand story of love instead of simply appreciated for its small, observational truths about how messy life becomes and how there isn't always someone to blame for the mess.

Young Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) and young Nora (Seung Ah Moon) see their lives go in different directions despite their close bond.
© 2023 - A24 Films

That isn't to say there's not a valid argument for those who found the impression this left more immense than I as the significance around Nora and Hae Sung's romance is not lost on me. I could sit here and type out all the things you've read about this movie elsewhere and what is so exciting about it including how wonderful the performances are, how subtle yet moving the score by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen is, or how intimate the exchanges are regardless of their larger implications, but it feels more effective to acknowledge how Song and her actors convey all of this and how the music compliments as much because it truly is all in the performances of Lee and Yoo that we are sold on the connection, the longing, and the loss. 

For starters, Song is literally very observational with her camera. Song, the director, is not concerned with coverage or cross-cutting to place as much of the performances on screen in close-up, but rather her camera hovers on the conversation and its participants - allowing the body language to say as much as the dialogue. Moreover, how Lee and Yoo carry out the third act meeting with one another by hardly being able to speak because they can't help but stare in disbelief at the physical being in front of them despite yearning to say so much is enough to make even the blackest of hearts giddy. So much to say but no words to properly convey. 

Nora (Greta Lee) and Teo (Hae Sung) reunite after twenty years and confront notions of love and destiny.
© 2023 - A24 Films

The MVP of the film is John Magaro though, who makes this quandary of logic and love and of convenience and certainty the more layered and complex situation that it ultimately is. If he were in fact the "evil, white, American husband standing in the way of destiny" as he so describes himself it would be an easy out for both the story and for the character of Nora, but Magaro plays Arthur with an understanding and surprisingly calm temperament. One could only hope to be as perceptive and (mostly) confident as Arthur is in this situation, but in his ability to acknowledge the complications of the facts of both he and Nora's story as well as Nora and Hae Sung's there is an added layer of heartbreak that makes the whole of the scenario (and the final scene of the film) as genuinely devastating as it is. 

Past Lives relies a lot on this old Korean concept of "in-yun" to relay its themes and ideas. In-yun is about how fate brings two people together based on countless connections in their previous lives, but Song's film is mostly about how while you can't control who walks into your life you can work to keep those you want in your life in this life. This doesn't make Nora's "decision" any easier (though the film is far too mature to simply hinge on as much), but it does beautifully illustrate her conflicted feelings of belonging to two different places at the same time while knowing the difference between her past and her future.

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