Whatever your theological or spiritual allegiance, we have all been routinely resurrected. Your dresser drawers are graveyards, filled with the cloth skeletons of the people you once were. Your Spotify playlist from a decade ago is nothing if not a fading echo of what your life used to sound like. Your childhood best friend, to whom your presence was their first joy, probably couldn’t pick you out of a lineup. Whether or not we contain multitudes, we certainly shed them.
“Past Lives” is both a celebration and a lament of this fact. Writer/director Celine Song’s debut film is an honest and kind gut punch that plays differently, depending on where you are at in your love life. It will find the invisible emotional bruises on the skin of the coupled-but-unsatisfied and push on them. Hard. It will reassure the currently contented that they are truly living the life they chose. It will torture and tempt the restless with a whispered “What if?”
That brutally short interrogative prompt plays out for Nora (Greta Lee) when she is reminded of a time before she was Nora, back when she was Na Young. As a 12-year-old, she loved a boy named Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), insofar as anyone that age can truly love anyone or anything. A dozen years after her family left South Korea, Hae Sung reconnects with Na Young, now Nora. They rekindle over Skype. She’s a burgeoning playwright. He’s a sullen soon-to-be engineer. She wants him to come to New York. He wants her to come to Seoul. Another 12 years will pass before he will sit with her and her husband, Arthur (John Magaro), in a bar, where the film both opens and ends.
As gossamer as your favorite memory, the plot of “Past Lives” is waifish. The movie is a feast. Lee is next-level genuine. Hoisting a torch for her over the course of 24 years seems downright reasonable. Yoo is equally sincere. With the same script and a different actor, Hae Sung could have been a toxic creep, an entitled brat crossing oceans so his manic pixie childhood sweetheart could grant his life meaning. Magaro has maybe the most challenging role, as he is asked to invite audiences to see him as something more than a roadblock to a romance that has been decades in the making.
Except, this isn’t a romance. Not really. “Past Lives” is a lament for what never was but also a celebration for what is. It is an embrace of every hitch and hiccup, every misstep and missed opportunity that led you to be who you are now. It is a dirge, an elegy for who others saw you to be but who you never were. It is an innocent idea, a dangerous daydream, a painful pleasure. There are many different reasons to cry by the film’s final act. Maybe the biggest is that you’ll never be able to see it for the first time again.
Grade = A+
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Shirley Li at The Atlantic says “Distance is key to the meditative magic of ‘Past Lives.’ Song’s film is filled with space—the intangible kind between words, and the physical kind between characters.”
Siddhant Adlakha at Joy Sauce says “Nora instantly becomes one of the great New York characters, in one of the great films about what it means to be (and to become) American, a process that usually entails gaining something by leaving something else behind.”
Audrey Fox at Looper says “The greatest charm of ‘Past Lives’ is in the chemistry between Greta Lee and Teo Yoo. They seem to be magnetically fused to one another — Nora can hardly walk across a room without Hae-Sung’s eyes laser-focused on her, and vice versa.”