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Past Lives (2023) - Review

A tender love letter to the one who got away.

The reunion of childhood sweethearts sees the beginning of a journey full of ‘what if’s’, heartbreak and acceptance as it delivers an emotional kick to the gut.

In Yun, the Korean concept of reincarnation and fate, is at the core of Korean-Canadian writer and director Celine Song’s achingly honest debut feature, Past Lives. In Yun suggests that the brushing of arms between two mere strangers in the street is only one of the thousands of layers of connection formed over their past lives; that no meeting is coincidental. The film sees Song explore this through the 24 years of Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung’s (Teo Yoo) complex relationship.


A24’s latest production is formed of parallels and sweet, melancholic nostalgia, as we are gifted a glance into Nora and Hae Sung’s journeys from childhood sweethearts to two people who are trying to come to terms with the aftermath of years of distance and growing pains. The 12-year old Na Young (Nora) and Hae Sung we meet share a carefree and naive love, as they bicker over who came first in class tests and hold hands in the back of their parents’ car. Yet, the budding relationship is pulled up by the roots when Na Young’s artist parents announce their intent to emigrate to Canada.


We meet them again 12 years later, in the early 2010s era of Skype and Facebook, with Nora doing a Playwriting MFA in New York and Hae Sung finishing his military service in South Korea. Here, Song depicts the oxymoronic notion of how much can change in 12 years whilst simultaneously, nothing much changing at all. We see the Korean diaspora and concept of identity explored earnestly through Nora. Her reconnection with her old friend who she calls “just so Korean” serves as a reminder of the 12-year-old version of herself, who seems so far from 24-year-old Nora. This is highlighted in her efforts to exercise her rusty Korean with the non-English speaking Hae Sung and her gradual adjustment to being addressed as Na Young after over a decade of leaving that side of her in Seoul. Hae Sung’s insistence on calling her by her Korean name, instead of her chosen English name, Nora, shows his hesitancy to accept that the girl he knew as a boy has become so unfamiliar to him.


We reunite with them a further 12 years later, landing us in the present day. Hae Sung’s last minute trip to visit Nora in New York sees her past flood in after so long of pushing it aside. Arthur (John Magaro), Nora’s husband - and arguably my favourite character - is inevitably caught up in their whirlwind reunion. He doesn’t persuade Nora not to see the mysterious man from her past when she announces Hae Sung’s visit - even after the fact she says that she finds Hae Sung attractive. When the trio go to a late night bar after meeting as a group for the first time, Arthur doesn’t even complain about the fact that Nora and Hae Sung ignore him for half of the conversation, as they talk in Korean with Nora turning her back to her husband to do so. Despite the fact that Arthur can clearly see the romantic feelings of his wife and her childhood sweetheart reignite before him, he doesn’t kick up that much of a fuss - making him a much better person than most. He is so confident in his love for her that all he can do is believe that she feels the same in return and chooses him. Through this, Song depicts a bittersweet version of acceptance. This could have been a love triangle. Arthur could have easily been the villainous husband of the story. But he was just like the spectator - watching it all unfold and having little power to do anything about it all.


Nora sends Hae Sung back to Seoul with the one last goodbye and affirms that her life is now with Athur in New York - and it makes sense that she would stay with the man who she has loved for years and built a life with - yet you can help but feel a sharp sting at the thought of Nora and Hae Sung’s chapter closing once and for all. Song’s choice to do so makes this feel so realistic and that is really what makes it hurt; as in real life, sometimes the grand gesture doesn’t always win the girl and you have to learn to move on through the heartache.


Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship is built on a foundation of unsaid feelings and awkwardly long held gazes. Emotion is so viscerally present throughout their interactions, yet most poignantly in the moments without dialogue. You can feel the tension in the space between their bodies as they stand on that dreaded curb, the fear of their desire for touch pulsating steadily under the surface. So when they lean in for that final hug goodbye, it delivers a swift painful blow as it follows him stepping into the taxi to the airport, cutting off the previously abundant supply of hope for a future. Song reserves the version of their lives where they end up together off screen, for one of their In Yun instead.


With the feature being shot on 35mm film, cinematographer Shabier Kirchner unlocks a rawness that makes Past Lives what it is. You cannot help but feel like you are in the chaos with them, on that sidewalk or across from them at the bar at 4am. Combined with Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s music; the emotional weight of the film rests in the tender, achy cavern of your chest, even days after the credits roll.


If you’re in the mood for a film that is as beautifully shot as the story is told, treat yourself to a date with Song’s Oscar-worthy gem. You may shed a tear but this viewing experience is far from a punishment, as A24 strikes gold again with a feature that is no doubt going to keep audiences talking for a long while after it leaves the box office. A definite must see.


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Leah is an Irish-German writer with a London postcode. She primarily devotes her time to writing about all things wondrous and woeful around theatre, film and literature, with some essays and poems here and there. This is fuelled by her mild-severe caffeine addiction and love of obnoxious sounding words.









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