This quiet film is an unconventional blockbuster that presents a meditative experience of cinema. Spoilers ahead
Since the local release of “Past Lives” by TBA Studios last August 30, 2023, audiences have been flocking to the cinemas to witness the unconventional blockbuster. This film straddles the idea of intertwined destinies and situitates it within the reality of relationships, time, and the immigrant experience.
“Past Lives” is the latest movie produced by A24, a company known for its distribution of quality films like Ex Machina (2015), Lady Bird (2017), Midsommar (2019), The Whale (2022), and multi-Oscar-winner Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022). The title marks the directorial debut of South Korean-Canadian playwright and screenwriter Celine Song. Song’s background as a playwright rings with a semi-autobiographical aspect in the life of the main character, playwright Nora (played by Greta Lee, known for her role in the dark Netflix comedy Russian Doll). Audiences observe the relationship between Nora and Hae Sung (played by German-South Korean actor Teo Yoo) as we see their narrative span decades, jumping through three parts.
A Plot Made of “Goodbyes”
The three parts can be described as “three goodbyes” as Director Celine Soo says in an interview, “The movie is in three goodbyes. They say goodbye as children. They say goodbye in youth, and they also say goodbye in the movie when they are fully grown up. “
Nora and Hae Sung were once classmates at a school in Seoul, where Nora always came first in her class and Hae Sung came second. The two shared a close relationship, and also mutual crushes. A recurring joke throughout the film that started when they were children is that Nora is “a crybaby” which is later seen coming full circle. Their childhood friendship came to a temporary halt when Nora’s family relocated to Canada.
After a gap of twelve years, Nora notices that Hae Sung has been actively searching for her on social media. They manage to reconnect through calls on Skype while Nora is in New York and Hae Sung is in Seoul. They balance their lives in college from across the world, until the distress of long distances forces them to put their relationship on pause.
It takes another dozen years before they finally reunite during Hae Sung’s visit to New York, now as grown-ups. The funny thing is, at parts you find yourself rooting for the childhood friends to have their moment. Yet at this point, Nora is married to Arthur (played by John Magaro), a Jewish, all-American writer she met at a residency during a communication break from her Skype-penpal.
During Hae Sung’s visit, the script breaks the fourth wall, as Arthur and Nora lie in bed and Arthur breaks into a monologue. He takes a step back to look at the situation with realistic eyes and recognizes the inherent romance of the situation — childhood friends meeting again after many years. He describes himself ironically as, “the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.” As his visit progresses through gloomy days in New York, you start to see how Arthur is an understanding, decent person. At this time, all the characters are now at different points in their lives, and not even destiny cannot hold off the inevitable final goodbye.
There are no villains in the film, which watches like poetry. There is tension for sure between potential love interests Hae Sung and Arthur. Hae Sung tells Nora, “I didn’t realize it would hurt to like your husband this much,” while Arthur has moments expressing doubts, as he also expresses to Nora, “You make my world so much bigger and I’m wondering if I do the same for you?”
The film goes full circle with the first and last scenes showing the main characters seated at the bar. Nora and Hae Sung acknowledge that in this life they were not meant to be together. At one point Hae Sung asks, “What if this is a past life as well, and we are already something else to each other in our next life? Who do you think we are then?” They banter imagining their “Past Lives”, from empress to servant, ending with Nora saying, “Perhaps I was a bird and you were the branch I landed on.”
“Perhaps I was a bird and you were the branch I landed on.”
As the night comes to a close and Hae Sung catches his Uber to the airport, a full minute goes by as the characters move to face each other slowly, with the pair’s thoughts up to speculation. As Hae Sung leaves, Nora walks back to their downtown walk-up, her husband waiting on the steps. She falls into Arthur’s arms, heaving with tears, bringing to mind the child that was crying at the start.
A Nuanced Cinematic Experience
While impressive in the way Director Song was able to squeeze three decades in an hour and forty minutes, the pacing of “Past Lives” is slow. This matches the cinematography that features stylized colors and a grainy finish — from views of the Brooklyn Bridge to a rusty train grumbling over the Hudson, it is extremely quiet throughout. Crunching on popcorn is not recommended for full appreciation of the visuals.
As both the director and main cast are played by immigrants, there is a sensation of displacement felt in the film with potent expressions of melancholy. Even the physical appearance of both Hae Sung and Nora express their current situation: Nora appears as the archetype of an Asian immigrant playwright now living in New York, outfitted with canvas tote bags, Doc Martens, and all. Meanwhile, Hae Sung matches the perfect picture of a South Korean, as Nora describes his “Korean masculinity.” While it is an immigrant story, it never becomes a full-fledged romance, bringing to mind the resting potential between an on-screen pair in Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love.
A Quiet Film for the Lovelorn
With the central theme of “Past Lives” and reincarnation, I was expecting a magical type of movie like the Japanese animated film kimi no na wa (Your Name). But it was nothing like that, instead grounding heavily in reality.
For those who favor relatively uncomplicated and straightforward relationships, the film might drag. But for those who relish uncertainty, or those with an “It’s Complicated” relationship status – it is highly relatable. The film is refreshing after watching a slew of entertaining yet campy films, pulling up points for reflection with far more muted, refined execution.
“Past Lives” is relatable to those who have had relationships go in topsy-turvy ways, all because of timing. Nora’s mother reflects on a pervading theme in the film, “It’s true that if you leave you lose things, but you also gain things, too.”
“It’s true that if you leave you lose things, but you also gain things, too.”
A24’s latest film is a story rooted in potential — from exploring the potential in the past, the potential that has been fulfilled, with potential anticipating more.