NOTE: This review originally ran as part of our 2023 Sundance Film Festival coverage.*
Who would be in our lives if it weren’t for life-changing events? The question might seem counterintuitive, but it is one at the heart of Celine Song’s quiet and contemplative first feature, Past Lives.
From its first captivating scene, Song grabs your emotions by the jugular and refuses to let go. In her opening shots, we see a trio of people sitting at a, an Asian man, an Asian woman partially turned toward the former, and a white man facing both of them but still sort of by himself. We hear what is presumably a couple from across the bar debating the relationship of the odd threesome. Who is together with whom? Is the woman interested in the white man? Is this some sort of fetish thing?
It’s a comical way to set up expectations and suspicions for the audience before transporting us back decades previously to South Korea, where we meet two preteens, Hae Sung and Nora. The two flirt like kids do, playing games and teasing each other about grades. At one point Nora tells her mother she is going to marry him.
Of course, this doesn’t happen as Nora and her family immigrated to Canada soon after. Twelve years pass and the two find one another on Facebook. Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) is clearly still hung up on the idea of Nora (Greta Lee) while reconnecting with him brings up a lot of emotions for her. The disconnect again only to come back together with Hae Sung visiting her in New York. She is now happily married to the white guy from the beginning of the movie, a writer named Arthur (John Magaro).
Song’s writing has a lightness to it, not weighed down by convention or sentiment. This love triangle is based on the playwright’s real life and though she has experience in the theater scene and as a writer on Amazon’s Wheel of Time, Past Lives is a subtly impressive first feature for Song.
Lee leads a trio of powerful performances, playing Nora with a playful and sophisticated air. Yoo’s showing is more subtle and quiet but all the more heartbreaking again, in love with the idea of his childhood friend and the past. Magaro brings nuance to a character easily made the villain or one-dimensional.
The empathy Song possesses oozes out onto the screen. There’s a moment where she, through Arthur’s character, recognizes that in another movie he would be the horrible white husband keeping the childhood lovers apart. Everything and everyone is more nuanced than that. What is so powerful about Past Lives is that it is a beautiful love story grounded in real life. You watch Greta Lee and Teo Yoo and John Magaro’s performances and you can’t help but relate to every single one. You feel that heartbreak because it could happen to you.
Past Lives is in theaters now. A24 will release it in DC on June 9th.