‘Past Lives’ Review: Celine Song’s Tremendous Debut Is an Early Frontrunner for Best Film of the Year | Sundance 2023
When we first see the three leads of Past Lives—the astounding debut of writer-director Celine Song—it’s from across a bar, as two strangers try to figure out how this group knows each other. As they look at Nora (Greta Lee), Hae Sung (Yoo Teo) and Arthur (John Magaro), these two bar patrons take their guesses: who is married, who is related, who is the third wheel in this equation. Over the course of Past Lives, we too find ourselves trying to figure out where these three will end up, what they mean to each other, and what their stories are in a film that is heartbreakingly romantic, impeccably told, and masterfully crafted to make maybe the best film of 2023.
Song jumps back 24 years prior to this hang out in a bar, showing a young Nora and her family as they prepare to emigrate from South Korea. Before they leave, Nora goes on a kid date with a kid in her class she has a crush on, Hae Sung. After a cute time together, the two separate, as Nora and her family fly thousands of miles away.
Song then cuts to 12 years later, as Nora is now in New York City for school, where she learns that Hae Sung has been looking for her. The two find each other once again, start an online friendship, and become almost inseparable in their long conversations over the internet. Over the course of the rest of the film, Song builds to this moment in the bar, telling this story that takes place over a quarter-century, and shows just how much we change, and the relationships in our lives can change as we grow older and evolve.
Much like last year’s incredible Return to Seoul, Past Lives shows the many lives we live in this one, and how we become new, different people, despite staying who we are. For example, the child version of Nora is understandably completely different from the Nora we meet in college, who is also different from the person we meet in the present day. Sure, there are elements of that person who exists, but we keep the core and evolve regardless. But Past Lives is also a matter of perspective in many ways. Nora might see the version of herself that grew up in South Korea as an entirely different person, but for Hae Sung, who has these moments of childhood as the only times he spent with this girl he’s become intrigued by for years, it almost becomes the core of his understanding of who she is.
Past Lives often comes back to the idea of “inyeon,” in which there are moments that tie each other for the course of their lives. This could be someone that is passed on the street, or someone that a person has had a meaningful relationship with. But no matter what, inyeon explores the idea that all of our meetings, all of our relationships were predestined, that we were meant to meet these people in our lives, and they have an impact no matter what. It’s this core idea that makes Past Lives such a moving proposition, as we watch Nora and Hae Sung grow, change, get closer, and further apart.
Because this is a film and we expect such stories to end in reunion and love, Song plays with these expectations, but makes the relationship they do have just as important, regardless of how this story might end. At one point, a character comments that if this story was a movie, they’d be seen as the villain, the person standing in the way of what the audience wants. It’s an endearing moment that isn’t entirely wrong, but Song’s playing with these difficult ideas and emotions makes this an even stronger story in the long run. This isn’t a story of happy endings or disappointing conclusions, it’s a story of the complications and intricacies of our lives and our relationships, and how our paths in life can never turn out how we expected. And sometimes, that uncertainty and surprise is even better than what we imagined.
Greta Lee is excellent as Nora, as she still embodies the playfulness and curiosity that made her such an endearing child, but she’s essential in showing the road that life takes us on that changes who we are in some ways, while keeping our hearts the same. Yoo Teo is also wonderful as Hae Sung, who can’t get the girl he fell in love with as a child out of his head. This love ends up being incredibly endearing and affecting thanks to Yoo Teo’s performance, and it’s hard not to root for him and Nora to reunite. While he doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as this duo, Magaro is also a remarkable addition to this group, whose hangdog appearance, and his fears and apprehension makes him a character that could’ve made him a cliché, but instead, makes him one of the most sympathetic and tender characters in this big-hearted endeavor.
Song has created a film perfectly encapsulating the messiness of life. Song explores the idea of certain things that never happened in our lives that we almost expected might happen, yet still with the contentment that our lives went exactly where they needed to be. For a debut feature, it’s striking how Song handles these delicate and intricate ideas with great care and consideration. Past Lives isn’t necessarily about regret, but rather, accepting that the choices we made in our lives were the correct ones and the growth that makes our desires and passions change over the years. Song does this with a quiet, reserved story that is beautiful in every shot (Song works with Small Axe cinematographer Shabier Kirchner here), as she confronts topics that would be difficult to do justice for even an established and experienced filmmaker. Watching Past Lives is to watch Celine Song become one of the most exciting new filmmakers of the future.
Song’s work here is incredible, as this story of the past and present, and what it means for the future is a carefully handled story told with love and heart. Greta Lee, Yoo Teo, and John Magaro make an incredible trio of performances, each of which hits on a unique and important perspective on this tale, in a film that you won’t want to leave, and will stick with you for long after. Past Lives isn’t just the best film of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it also will likely go down as one of the best films of 2023.