In Celine Song’s Past Lives, there is a scene where Nora (The Morning Show‘s Greta Lee) is speaking to her future husband Arthur (John Magaro) about the concept of inyeon. Nora explains that inyeon means “providence or fate,” and it’s “specifically about relationships between people.” Inyeon is about the people who come into your life. It can be something as small as two strangers bumping into each other in the street. Inyeon can also be about the person you marry and that there were thousands of layers across thousands of lifetimes that led you to that moment. In other words, you met this person in a past life.
If this movie was a person, Past Lives is my version of inyeon. Thanks to Song’s beautiful direction and the moving performances from the three leads, Past Lives feels like a movie I would love in any lifetime. The film floored me on so many levels, both physically and emotionally. It’s the kind of movie where you must sit quietly for a few minutes after the screen goes black because it forces you to reevaluate your life and contemplate your decisions. This all sounds pretty heavy for an A24 romantic drama, and at times, it can feel like you’re about to break emotionally, but Past Lives is one of the best dramas of 2023.
Past Lives follows two childhood soulmates – Nora and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) – over 24 years. The story is told in three acts. The first act is set in South Korea when Nora and Hae Sung are 12-year-old classmates who develop feelings for each other. Nora’s family immigrates to Toronto, ending their relationship. The second act picks up 12 years later, with Nora living in New York City and Hae Sung in South Korea. The two reconnect via Facebook and spend time talking over video chat. Twelve years later, it’s the present day, the site of the third act. Nora is married to Arthur and living in New York. A recently single Hae Sung flies to New York to spend a few days with Nora and contemplate their relationship and what could have been.
With the way she stages scenes each scene and frames each shot with such beauty and care, it’s hard to believe that Past Lives is Song’s directorial debut. As a New Yorker, Song makes little things I take for granted – riding the ferry around the Statue of Liberty and walking the streets of the East Village – appear to be the most romantic activities in the world. Song is an established playwright, which explains why her dialogue and ability to convey action through words is so strong. Every aspiring screenwriter should watch the bar scene with the three leads to understand how to script romance, love, and masculinity.
One of my takeaways from Past Lives is that Song will be a prominent voice in cinema for the next few decades. I love experiencing a filmmaker’s directorial debut and knowing immediately they will become a star overnight. It’s similar to how I felt watching Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, and Cooper Raiff’s Shithouse. I can’t wait to see what Song does next.
Warning: There will be spoilers below. Skip this section if you do not want to know what happens in the final scene.
Endings are hard, so they should be celebrated when done right. After sharing one final meal, Nora walks with Hae Sung down the block to wait for his Uber. The two exchange heartfelt looks at one another before the cab appears. Before leaving, Hae Sung asks Nora if this moment is a past life and if they are something else to each other in their next life. Nora says she doesn’t know, to which Hae Sung smiles and says, “See you then.” Hae Sung leaves, and Nora slowly walks back to her apartment. At the front door, Nora cries and collapses into Arthur’s arms.
Song has said that Past Lives is a movie of goodbyes, with the final act serving as the ultimate farewell. Hae Sung gets to say goodbye to his friend who abruptly left him 24 years prior and close this chapter of his life. Nora also got to say goodbye to her younger self, which brought her to tears. It’s a brilliantly staged scene from Song. Nora walks right to left to say goodbye to Hae Sung, which symbolizes the past. Nora then walks back to her apartment from left to right, moving back into the present as she continues her future with Arthur.
After watching Past Lives, one of the first things that came to mind was Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, the 2003 dramedy about Bob Harris (Bill Murray), an aging star having a midlife crisis. While working in Japan, Bob meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a recent college graduate struggling to find her way. Part of the genius of Lost in Translation is how it balances platonic and romantic love. There are several times when Bob and Charlotte’s platonic connection could turn romantic, especially when they share the same bed. Yet, the film is more effective because they don’t act on their sexual desires. Even though Bob and Charlotte kiss at the end, their hug is more effective in showing their love and appreciation toward each other than any sex scene would have done.
This same balance between friends and lovers is evident in Past Loves. In most romantic movies, Nora and Hae Sung would hook up during their final goodbye, while Arthur would be left in the dirt. Yet, that’s not the story Song was trying to tell. Frankly, it would have ruined the movie. When choosing between Hae Sung and Arthur, the decision was easy. Nora picks who she loves in this reality, not in a past life. It’s her inyeon, just like my inyeon is Past Lives.
Past Lives is available to rent or purchase at various digital vendors.
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