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Past Lives

Debut films don't get any better than this movingly tender, blisteringly honest and deeply complex romance — and neither do new movies in 2023.
By Sarah Ward
August 30, 2023
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By Sarah Ward
August 30, 2023
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Call it fate, call it destiny, call it feeling so deeply that you were always meant to cross paths with another person that no other outcome could ever be conceivable: in Korean, that sensation is in-yeon. Call it having a connection that sprawls yet binds like an endless piece of string, always linking you to someone no matter how far apart you each wander: stretch that out over many, many lifetimes and, yes, that is in-yeon as well. Watching Past Lives, which references the kismet-esque concept both in its three-part story and its title, gives viewers a brush with in-yeon, too. Writer/director Celine Song's feature debut is that affecting; that vivid, evocative and haunting; that alive with been-there-lived-that energy. Wading through layers of love, identity, roads taken and not, and the versions of ourselves that we are at each fork, Past Lives is that acutely able to make a very specific experience mirror everyone's experiences.

Partway through the film, aspiring playwright and writer Nora (Greta Lee, Russian Doll) talks through in-yeon with fellow scribe Arthur (John Magaro, The Many Saints of Newark). She shares that in-yeon lingers with everyone that you meet, the very act of making one's acquaintance signifying that you've done so before — and if two people become lovers, it's because they've kept falling into step in life after life. As Nora speaks, Past Lives' audience are well-aware of an unshakeable truth, as is the movie's central figure: that she knows in-yeon in her bones. Indeed, this is what Song's sublime feature is about from its first frames to its last in every way that it can be. With Arthur, Nora jokes that in-yeon is something that Koreans talk about when they're trying to seduce someone. There's zero lies in her words, because she's working that move right there and then, and she'll end up married to him. But with her childhood crush Hae Sung (Teo Yoo, Decision to Leave), who she last saw at the age of 12 because her family then moved from Seoul to Toronto, in-yeon explains everything.

That one perfect term sums up Nora and Hae Sung's firm friendship as kids, as chronicled in Past Lives' first third. As pre-teens, the duo (Voice of Silence's Moon Seung-ah and Good Deal's Leem Seung-min) are virtually inseparable — walking home from school together daily, competing over grades, bantering with effortless rapport — until half a globe separates them. Then, when they reunite in their 20s via emails and Skype calls after 12 years without each other, Past Lives' crucial word also describes their instant spark and pull. The latter is so magnetic that they're basically dating without saying it, and while he's still in South Korea but she's now in New York. Next, it captures the complicated emotions that swell when Nora and Hae Sung are finally in the same place together again after decades. Arthur is in the picture by then and, ever-adaptable, in-yeon even encapsulates that development.

If Past Lives didn't leave its viewers certain to their core about its emotional authenticity, that'd be a greater surprise than how strongly and tenderly it resounds. The Korean-born Song also emigrated to Canada with her parents at the same point in her life as Nora. While she hasn't made a strictly autobiographical work, there's fact dwelling behind this fiction. Her picture would pair astoundingly well with Minari and Aftersun, in fact. In its way, leaping in souls and minds rather than through realms, it's a multiverse tale and companion to Everything Everywhere All At Once also. Feeling so intimately applicable to the characters loving, living, immigrating, yearning and growing within its frames, and yet echoing so universally, is that always-sought-after holy grail of storytelling feats. Although her film hones in on the heart — on-and off-screen alike — as it gets poetic and philosophical (and delivers a Big Apple-set Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight sequence), that Song studied psychology and once planned to become a therapist isn't astonishing to learn.

Each time that Nora and Hae Sung slide back into each other's existences, a dozen years have passed, but it feels no time at all for both. Still, that sentiment can't and doesn't smooth their way onwards. Fittingly, Past Lives is crafted to resemble slipping into a memory, complete with patient looks and visuals (Skate Kitchen and Small Axe cinematographer Shabier Kirchner lenses) and a transportingly evocative score (by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear, which gives the picture a bond with the also-heartwrenching Blue Valentine and its own knotty romance). This feature knows every emotion that springs when you need someone and vice versa, but life has other plans. It feels the weight of the trails left untrodden, even when you're happy with the route you're on. It understands what it's like to be see your past, plus the present and future it could've influenced, shimmering in front of your eyes.

Past Lives is a film about details — spying them everywhere, in Nora and Hae Sung's lives and in their faces, while recognising how the best people in anyone's orbits spot them as well. Of course every second appears meticulous, then, but also equally dreamy and ripped from reality. Of course Lee, Yoo and Magaro are each magnificent, as is this entire sensitive, blisteringly honest and complex masterpiece. Lee charms Nora's two love interests and Past Lives' viewers in tandem, in a sincere and sharp performance as a woman who is as witty as she is wistful while grappling with who she is. Yoo hops from the best movie of 2022 to what'll be difficult to beat as the best of 2023 with quiet dedication and potency. And Magaro plays adoring, accepting but never elementary; Arthur knows how intricate the situation is, so his way through is just that, through, gleaning his part in helping Nora and Hae Sung be who they need to.

Contemplating what's written in the stars also involves contemplating beginnings and endings, even when in-yeon has cycles and reincarnations all a-fluttering. Again, Song fashions Past Lives to embody all that it muses on, including via an opening that's utterly immaculate and a closing scene that's breathtakingly divine. Both are also unforgettable. To start, jumping forward before going backwards, Nora, Arthur and Hae Sung sit at a bar. Her body language is all about her lifelong friend, as fellow drinkers peering on comment on; regardless of how things appear, though, only Nora, Arthur and Hae Sung can ever truly grasp their own full story. To wrap up, simply walking and waiting is so impeccably considered and staged, down to the direction that events flow in across the screen, that they say everything about advancing, retreating and wishing you were doing one while going through the other. Past Lives is a movie to lose yourself in, and gloriously; a film to fall head over feels for, and fast; like it feels fated to be, it's also just extraordinary.

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