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‘Past Lives’ Review: Different kind of multiversal love story, and one of 2023's best films

Ostensibly spare but massive in feeling, Celine Song's astonishing debut follows two people who reconnect years after experiencing sparks of affection as children.
Credit: A24

TEXAS, USA — One of the summer’s most immersive movie experiences doesn’t have an A-list star with an instantly recognizable name. It isn’t part of a decades-strong franchise, and its budget is probably what it cost to cater a day on the “Transformers” set. And yet, the superbly gentle craft of “Past Lives” (opening Friday in San Antonio) envelops you completely in its story about the detours that shape the maps of our lives, and the unexplainable – and heartbreaking – curiosity that abounds when we wonder where a different turn might’ve taken us. 

You notice it in the score and cinematography of writer-director Celine Song’s astonishing feature debut, but most vitally it’s in the carefully curated soundscapes—the way distant car horns in New York City contrast with the meditative stillness of urban Korea in order to inform, accentuate and personify the gaps our two protagonists are attempting to close. It’s vast distances in time and geography that Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) reckon with as the two reconnect sometime in their 20s over Skype, the program’s singular video-call ring of dooDOdoo-dooDODO heralding a chance at rediscovery a decade after Nora’s family immigrated to the U.S. 

She’s now a budding writer, he’s studying engineering. But grown-up occupations feel moot for two souls who last communicated as children, and who might now be rekindling the spark of mutual affection they had in youth against the recognition that time can’t stop to account for how life has changed them, as it does us all. “We’re not dating,” Nora says out loud at one point, and somehow the clarity pierces all the deeper over something that was probably obvious. Perhaps those are our own memories eking through. 

Nora will have married by the time she and Hae Sung conquer physical distance with his visit to New York 12 years later, catching up on a pier where the ringaling-ringaling of a carousel provides background melody to a reunion that passers-by wouldn’t know the gravity of if they happened to look their way. 

Such is the harmony Song has conjured up between the medium-confronting intelligence of her script and the thoughtfulness of how “Past Lives” literally looks and sounds—this conceptually featherweight film carries the impact of history because of our ability to recognize that Nora and Hae Sung’s dilemma transcends cinematic boundaries. It’s a movie of poetic dialogue, but we fill the silences with our own reminiscing about who we’ve become and who we might have been. The implicit grandiosity of it all can be summed up in another of the movie’s trademark sounds, the only one Nora can muster when she embraces Hae Sung after more than 20 years: “Woah… woah… woah!!”

“Past Lives” filters universal questions about the inevitability of change – a thing both beautiful and terrifying for how it affirms our humanity – through the sheer gravity of its premise, opening with the kind of intimately scaled heartbreak most relationship dramas might save for their finales. With the exception of some middle-act stretches that feel manufactured as setup for its aching finale, scenes practically slip into each other, and in such a way that poignant dialogue about fate, chance, and whether or not we’re ever really controlling the sails of our lives reflect against the film as a whole. The core duo of Nora and Teo Hoo later becomes a triumvirate when Nora’s husband Arthur (John Magaro) is introduced, and you’re encouraged to at least chuckle at the irony of it all. How unfortunate, you might think, that Nora missed out on her chance at a life with a hunk in Hae Sung for this haggard young writer that doesn’t capture hearts quite so effortlessly. 

“Past Lives” knows the thought might cross your mind. Wouldn't it be the central conflict in most movies with love triangles? There is a will they/won’t they element to “Past Lives,” but the question isn’t if Nora and Hae Sung will lock lips under the urban glow, validating decades of longing by acting on it. This isn’t that kind of movie; when Arthur proclaims himself the “evil white American” who interrupted destiny, his tongue is planted firmly in cheek. The question is more spiritual in nature, entrenched in the meticulous elegance of Song’s filmmaking: Will Nora and Hae Sung arrive at some sort of understanding about where their lives have taken them, the turns navigated by forces beyond their control?

Credit: A24

It’s intensely engaging to watch them try, even as “intense” is hardly the right word to describe a romantic drama without the screaming matches and climactic ultimatums traditionally associated with the genre—its melodies are too cosmic to fully comprehend in the space of 100ish minutes, and “Past Lives” doesn’t cheapen itself by suggesting there’s such a thing as right or wrong when it comes to its characters (if the movie ever hints at simple compartmentalization, it’s played for laughs). There’s no dramatic sprint through the airport, but instead casual strolls along the Hudson River that finds the camera lilting up before gliding back down. In place of a seize-the-day musical swell, composers Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen have woven an impossibly graceful score echoing the ceaseless motions of life. Sometimes, shots are composed like we were observing our characters from a distance, as if Song was foregrounding the fact that the stories of these people – like the ones who pass ever so briefly through our own lives – are ones we can't ever fully know. 

Characters talk, too, about connections and shared experiences, the channels through which circumstances change while memories of people and places remain frozen in time. Arthur and Nora talk about the choices that were made that led them to each other. Nora and Hae Sung talk about how they remember each other as young kids in Korea, when priorities were simpler and any crisis more foundational. Arthur and Hae Sung… yes, they talk too, in a most poignant scene that puts into stark relief how hard it is to depict quiet self-acceptance on screen, and how incredible it is to witness when done right. Emotional compromise is reached in words, but feelings are confessed in glances and gaits, in case you were wondering about the movie’s cinematic value—it is, it turns out, immense in its ability to tug at our own experiences and use them to fill out the contours of what we see unfolding on screen. If movies reflect our experiences, "Past Lives" ever so capably helps us make sense of them. 

"Past Lives" is now available on digital platforms. It's rated PG-13 for some strong language. Runtime: 1 hour, 45 minutes. 

Starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Moon Seung-ah

Written and directed by Celine Song




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