Past Lives Review: Destined to be one of the best movies of 2023

Sundance: Greta Lee is absolutely wonderful in a fluid and tender love story about a Korean immigrant who is split between two men and herself.


Of all the writers in all the summer towns across New York, he had to go to theirs. As the sun fades on a perfect Montauk night — it sets the stage for a first kiss that, like so many of the most resonant moments in Celine Song’s transcendent “Past Live,” is ultimately left to the imagination — tells Nora (Greta Lee). Arthur (John Magaro) on the Korean concept of In Yun, suggesting that people are destined to meet when their souls have previously intersected a certain number of times. When Arthur asks Nora if she really believes in all of this, the Seoul-born woman sitting across from him welcomingly replies that it’s just “something Koreans say to seduce someone.” Needless to say, it works.

But as this delicate but overwhelmingly beautiful film continues to move forward in time – the wet tone of Nora and John’s flirtation hardening into marriage within a single cut – the very real life they create together cannot other than paralleling the conceited one that Nora certainly seemed to share with the childhood sweetheart she had left behind in her native land. She and Hae Sung (“Leto” star Teo Yoo) haven’t seen each other in person since they were in elementary school, but their bonds have never quite broken.

On the contrary, they seem to knot in unexpected ways every 12 years when Hae Sung returns to its first swarm with the cosmic regularity of a comet streaking through the sky. The closer he gets to contact Nora, the more heartbreakingly complicated her relationship with fate becomes. And with every passing scene in this film — all so quiet and sacrosanct that even her most uncertain moments feel like they’re being repeated like an ancient prayer — it becomes easier to understand why Nora called In-Yun on that seismic Montauk night . Sure, maybe she really just used it as a pick-up line because she knew it would give her (neurotic Jewish) husband-to-be the green light he needed to do something. But then again, what could possibly be more seductive to a man in this world than the promise of divine providence?

On paper, “Past Lives” may sound like a diasporic riff on a Richard Linklater romance – one that condenses the entire “Before” trilogy into a single film. In practice, however, this razor-sharp love story almost entirely eschews any sort of “baby, you’re gonna miss that plane” drama in favor of teasing out some more unspeakable truths about how people find each other with (and through) each other. That’s not to say that Songs’s distinctly autobiographical debut doesn’t spawn a classic “Who will she choose?” suspense when it’s over, but to emphasize how inevitable it feels for Nora’s man crisis to escalate into a bittersweet twitch of approval rather than a megaton punch to the pit of the stomach. Here’s a romance that unfolds with the sad resignation of the Leonard Cohen song that inspires Nora’s English-language name; It’s a film less interested in seducing its heroine with “the one who got away” than in allowing her to reconcile with the version of himself he kept as a keepsake when she left is.

As we see in the first act of this fluid yet relentlessly linear film, Nora’s family makes the decision to leave Seoul when she was a child, and that decision has had as one-sided an impact on her life trajectory as her rusty Korean did when she left reconnects with Hae Sung via Skype in her twenties. Its traditional Korean becomes a foreign body for them. Not only is it a privacy screen of sorts in itself, but one so impenetrable that Nora doesn’t even seem to notice how beautiful her former math rival has become as a grown man. (How convenient it is for these two people that each of their childhood romances turned out to be ridiculously attractive. And uncomfortable, too.) To them, Hae Sung is every Korean, and maybe even Korea itself. At the same time, he’s also the only man on a billion-dollar planet , who knows who Nora was before she was reborn into the dash identity, which she has preserved and expanded throughout her adult life. He knows the only Nora Arthur can never meet and couldn’t hope to understand her even if he did.

But don’t be fooled, Arthur will eventually come out as an “evil white American husband standing in the way of fate.” Song’s raindrop-soft screenplay refuses to paint any of its characters with such a broad and/or predictable brush; The people in “Past Lives” are very similar to the people in our own, meaning they’re scared and self-divided, but generally friendly.

So the men at least be scared. The denial Nora asserts as meaning Hae Sung’s impromptu visit to New York in Act III may not leave room for too many other emotions, but that only explains a little of the headstrong attitude Lee brings to her role. The “Russian Doll” star infuses each beautiful but inflexible line of song with multiple composite sentiments.

Whether she plays Nora as an MFA student in her 20s who finds Hae Sung on Facebook 1.0 with a zeal she can’t admit, or as a playwright in her 30s grieving for a part of herself they’ll never get back , Lee’s wondrous performance slices from the heart of her character’s self-shared identity with the easygoing grace of a surgeon operating on a complete stranger. She uses Nora’s personal confidence and creative ambition as a shield to protect herself from what could have been, making the rare moments she lowers her vigilance seem almost unbearably vulnerable. It also makes it easy to see why, despite the strength of her internet connection with Hae Sung, Nora can’t stomach the thought of immigration twice – first to Toronto and then to Manhattan – only to end up with a guy from Seoul.

The absolute immediacy of Lee’s performance allows you to feel every frame of “Past Lives” against your skin, which is crucial for a film that conveys the brunt of its meaning through meaning rather than story; a film that commands its easygoing rhythms and ethereal awkwardness with a confidence that makes Song’s “people don’t talk like that” dialogue a key asset. Magaro and Yoo have no trouble keeping up with Lee’s pace – both actors are endearing without ever seeming dishonest, with Yoo in particular acknowledging his character’s hopeless romance with enough authority that Hae Sung never comes across as opportunistic or self-pitying.

Every other facet of the film conspires to amplify the semi-inflated reality its cast sets in motion. Shabier Kirchner’s long-lens 35mm cinematography emphasizes the threat of distance inherent in Song’s meticulous composition (at one point a character is cut out of a shot in a way that made me gasp), Grace Yun’s production design shares the difference between “romance under pressure” and “fairy tale too precious”, while Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s crystal clear score allow the film to find its right time from the start.

“Past Lives” can be broken down into three distinct sections, but its broken chronology never feels particularly elliptical. There are no “jumps” here – no “12 years later”. It’s always “12 YEARS PASS,” a poignant choice of words that conveys the sense of time slipping through Nora’s fingers and gathering at her feet, as it should in a film that’s not so much about a woman , trying to choose between two men as it’s a film about someone trying to reconcile the no-do-over nature of life with the immigrant feeling that theirs has had a fresh start two or three times . Once is neverAs the German proverb says: “What happens once may as well not have happened at all.”

This tension puts an added pressure on every moment of Song’s film, especially as Nora begins to confront more clearly what it means for the world to only spin forward. The rare missteps here reverberate at a volume disproportionate to the noise they’re making at the moment, to the point that something as benign as the film’s unnecessary final shot looks like a blob the size of the Chrysler Building in the memory remains. But even that’s appropriate for a story about the small parts of our lives that grow so big in the rearview mirror that they threaten to overwhelm everything else we can see, and a story that has no room for regret. “If you leave something behind,” says Nora’s mother at the beginning of this extraordinary film, “you also gain something.” I suppose it depends on who you leave it to and what they can give you back in (eternal) return.

Grade: A-

Past Lives premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release it in the United States later this year.

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