Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 4th, 2023
Past Lives (Celine Song, 2023) 4 out of 4 stars.
Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Celine Song, Past Lives tells a poignant story of immigration, assimilation, aspiration, love, and regret. Starring the moving trio of Greta Lee (Fits and Starts), Teo Yoo (Decision to Leave), and John Magaro (First Cow), the movie follows Nora (Lee)—born Na Young—from her childhood in South Korea to her adult years in New York City, where she has become a playwright. Taking her time to develop characters and relationships, Song deftly brings the audience deep into the narrative until we are fully invested in the eventual outcome.
Best friends with Hae Sung (Yoo) when young, Nora loses contact with him after her family emigrates to Canada. Years later, they reconnect online, but circumstances and apprehension keep them from meeting in person. Soon after that, Nora weds novelist Arthur (Magaro). A decade ensues. When Hae Sung finally decides to come for a visit, it threatens to upend Nora’s comfortable world, as well as her marriage.
It’s an almost breathtakingly assured debut, and one of the best films of 2023, brilliantly acted with both deep sentiment and restraint. There’s a quietness in even the most emotionally fraught scenes that serves to emphasize the roiling torment within each member of our would-be ménage à trois. A gentle score, from composers Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen, forms the perfect accompaniment to the drama.
The frankness of the dialogue gives the actors plenty of room to shine, whether in Korean or English. But it’s more what is not said than what is expressed outright that lends especial urgency to the affair; behavioral performance speaks far louder than words. Not only do the adults shine, but the kid versions of them more than hold up their end.
Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner (Small Axe) delivers the visual goods, too, framing the action with naturalistic lighting that hides the careful precision of his evocative compositions. No matter if we’re in close-up or on a wide shot, still or moving, everyone and everything is exactly where it’s supposed to be. There is no element out of place.
By the time Past Lives draws to its bittersweet conclusion, it’s hard to let go. Heartbreak is sad, but it also feels good to feel something, the pain a reminder that life is an experience to be savored in all its tragicomic beauty. Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur live fully and take chances. Watching them, we cry but also laugh. That duality of feeling is Song’s precious gift to us. Thank you dearly.