REVIEW: PAST LIVES (2023) is a love story you will love to remember

PAST LIVES is a film for anyone who fell in love and lost. A gem we rarely see on the silver screen nowadays. It is a love story that resonates with our own love stories in one way or another, making it quite hard to forget.
Orly Agawin

PAST LIVES (2023) is a film that weaves together a tapestry of themes - love, ambition, race, relationships, distance, technology, silent struggles, and migration, among others. But, what's remarkable is its ability to blend these diverse elements into a symphony, creating a melody that resonates. To say the least, it is a perfect film

"Some crossings cost you your whole life," reflects the essence of human journeys, as portrayed in this deeply personal film. It tells the story of Nora, an immigrant who left her childhood, identity, and Hae Sung - her childhood love behind when her family migrated to Canada when she was twelve. Now, 20 years after and living in New York City, she finds herself torn between her past as Na Young and her present as Nora, with her childhood friend Hae Sung.

Director Celine Song's structure thrives on linear storytelling with moments of reflection. It invites the audience to question the dynamics between its characters, setting the stage for an exploration of their relationships. As we journey from Seoul to New York City, we witness the evolution of Nora's life and her virtual connection with Hae Sung, grounded in emails and Skype calls. However, the pull of their relationship threatens to disrupt Nora's pursuit of her dreams in New York.

Nora's eventual meeting with Arthur, her future husband, introduces the concept of In-Yun. It emphasizes the profound connections people share across lifetimes. The film dives into their evolving relationship, revealing layers of connection and understanding. As they navigate their life together, Arthur grapples with the parts of Nora he can't access, ultimately learning to appreciate the love they share and accepting what they cannot.

The film reaches a poignant climax when Hae Sung visits New York. Their reunion after twenty-four years is filled with unspoken emotions, and Nora becomes his guide to the city. Through their gaze, we see New York anew, and their eyes often find solace in each other. Yet, Nora is committed to her life with Arthur, and she must convince both men that her choices are deliberate. While she misses Seoul, it's not her home, and her past, embodied by Na Young, remains elusive.

During these moments, you start to get answers to questions that have been lingering early on in the film. Yet, Song restrains her characters from revealing too much. It's intriguing how Hae Sung, a tourist from Seoul, sees Nora as his personal embodiment of New York. Around them, the city appears as it is, unremarkable, lacking color and vibrancy. But whenever Hae Sung marvels at Nora, like a tourist who has finally seen the place has been dreaming to see, he knows that he has truly "arrived."

Song's debut as a filmmaker is a masterclass in storytelling. As a playwright turned filmmaker, her narrative centers on Nora and Hae Sung. She creates an ambiance where the world around them blurs dreamily when they are together. There's an unmistakable bond between them, even though it never had the opportunity to solidify. Each yearning gaze, late-night video call, unsent email, or excited smile traces the path of their relationship. Instead of unnecessary melodrama, the characters' subtle dialogue engages through authentic conversations that uncover each other's vulnerabilities.

With a gentle touch, cinematographer Shabier Kirchner visualizes the themes of PAST LIVES. From intimate close-ups of Nora's face to Hae Sung's emotionally charged reactions that speak volumes without the need for words, Kirchner was able to create visual dialogues we rarely see in cinema nowadays. During their long-awaited reunion, the two effortlessly transition from basking in the magic hour's glow on Brooklyn's waterfront to sunny ferry rides and street-lit walks in the East Village.

It's a playful juxtaposition to the film's earlier setting in Seoul, where young Hae Sung and Na Young navigated hilly routes home and played among modern sculptures in a park. Regardless of the location, Kirchner's camera conveys their undeniable connection, emphasizing that nothing else in the world matters as much as this moment.

The movie integrates Nora and Hae Sung's shared background, making it a vital part of the narrative, akin to a secondary connection beyond their individual interests. This shared background represents the life that Nora left behind when she moved away—a piece of herself sacrificed for the promise of something new. Their shared language becomes a source of connection that her American husband can't fully share, allowing Nora and Hae Sung to maintain a private dialogue even in his presence.

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, as Nora and Hae Sung, deliver impeccable performances through a sense of comfort and elegance. The characters' eagerness to engage in conversation with each other feels entirely authentic, and their meandering conversations come with a certain degree of authenticity.

Lee and Yoo succeed in conveying a deep sense of history between their characters through their gazes alone, all without the need for words. Their subtle expressions reveal the restrained emotions lurking beneath a polite smile, and a single heavy sigh is all it takes to unleash tears for a love that was never meant to be - a life that remained elusive, and a childhood that fades further into the past with each passing year.

Because, having a shared history doesn't necessarily mean sharing the same emotions, as highlighted by the recurring motif of In-Yun - the encounters in past lives that can influence present connections. While Nora dismisses this concept with a laugh during her initial encounter with Arthur at a writers' retreat, Hae Sung takes it seriously as he contemplates his long-anticipated visit to New York. Ultimately, they find themselves on divergent paths, yet deep down, they remain the same individuals who first locked eyes as children.

PAST LIVES is a film for anyone who fell in love and lost. A gem we rarely see on the silver screen nowadays. It is a love story that resonates with our own love stories in one way or another, making it quite hard to forget. It says that we can cherish the memories of our past lives, all the while recognizing those that we lost: childhood treasures left behind, paths left untraveled, and relationships that were never destined for us.

Go see it, friends.

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