“Past Lives” Review – One of the Year’s Best Films

Past Lives

“Past Lives” is the directorial debut of writer/director Celine Song. The film follows Nora, a Korean immigrant who left behind a childhood romance with classmate Hae Sung when she emigrated at 12 years old. Now, over 20 years later, Hae Sung visits the U.S. for a week-long vacation, reuniting with a married Nora.

With a 97% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and rave reception after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, it’s easy to go into “Past Lives” expecting the next cinematic masterpiece. I went in with my expectations low, not because I thought the film would be bad, but because I strived to avoid disappointment. Thankfully, I left astounded by this extraordinary film.

The key to this movie’s success is the perpetual realism at its core. There are no irrational characters or trashy rom-com lowbrow humor commonly found in romance films. Like Richard Linklater’s “Before Trilogy,” there’s calculated nuance to the conversations and relationships. All three leads (Nora, her husband Arthur, and Hae Sung) are completely relatable. You can see where Arthur and Hae Sung are coming from; neither fall into love triangle archetypes, and they instead behave like mature adults. The complexity of this situation makes this story of lost opportunities all the more heartbreaking.

Past Lives

Song’s direction also grounds the film, as she carefully prohibits style from getting in the way of drama to fully immerse the audience in the story. Her work is most reminiscent of Todd Field’s direction in last year’s “Tár” (he should’ve won the Best Director Oscar by the way).

Where Song really shines, however, is in her writing. The dialogue is gripping without any showy monologuing. Her meticulous story structure transports us across time with Nora. Each character, as mentioned previously, is completely three-dimensional. They all feel like legitimate people who we could know in reality. The events of the film lead to an immensely satisfying ending which, while crushing, makes perfect sense in light of the grounded tone. Song’s screenplay is the most impressive of 2023 thus far, although I do think the film could’ve been trimmed by five minutes. Unfortunately, that’s an issue common in nearly every film nowadays. It’s a plague which even “Past Lives” succumbed to.

Past Lives

You know you’ve seen a terrific film when you find yourself still thinking about it days, weeks, even months later. By the end of “Past Lives,” I couldn’t stop theorizing about what Nora and Hae Sung’s lives would be like if she had remained in Korea, and that’s the true accomplishment of this film.


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