‘Past Lives’ Review: This Melancholy Drama Is One of the Year’s Best Movies
The movie is called Past Lives, but that’s not precisely how the title appears onscreen. When it shows up in the opening and closing credits, it looks more like this—
— as if this movie is not just about “past lives” in the sense of reincarnation (although that is occasionally discussed) but rather about those words as distinct concepts, and how one reflects on the other. The huge space between the words onscreen also foreshadows and mirrors the enormous physical and emotional distances that separate the characters in this beautiful and heartbreaking drama. The past in Past Lives links people even as it keeps them apart, like magnets alternately drawn together and then repelled apart by invisible forces as immutable as the laws of space and time.
Maybe that’s me thinking a little too deeply about title card typography. Or maybe not; Past Lives is the sort of film that inspires intense thought; you walk out of the theater contemplating not only the movie itself but how it echoes situations in your own life. No matter who we are or where we come from, we are all shaped by a near-infinite collection of coincidences and choices. Sometimes we make conscious decisions to shift our lives; sometimes our lives shift subtly, and we only realize a change has occurred in hindsight. And sometimes our destiny changes right in front of us, and we know it is changing, and we are powerless to stop it.
Each of these permutations occurs over the course of Past Lives to the two central characters: A playwright named Nora (Greta Lee) and an engineer named Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). Even within Nora’s one biological lifetime, she has had a sort of past life; she was born in Korea, where she was known as Na Young (Seung Ah Moon). When Na Young was 12, her family immigrated to Canada, leaving behind their lives in Korea and — most importantly for Na Young — leaving behind her best friend, Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim). Before Na Young leaves Korea, her mom encourages her to go on a date with Hae Sung; she wants her daughter to have fond memories of their original home before they leave it for good.
12 years later, Na Young is now known as Nora, and she’s immigrated again, this time to New York City to study writing. That’s where a strange quirk of fate — plus a technological assist from Facebook — brings Hae Sung back into her life. They reconnect on social media, and they are soon virtually inseparable, despite being separated by a 13-hour time difference. (They spend endless hours video chatting on Skype.)
Then time jumps again, to 12 years after Nora and Hae Sung met again over the internet. Now in the present day, Nora lives in New York City with her husband — who is not Hae Sung. Instead, she’s married to Arthur (John Magaro), another writer she met at a artists’ retreat. Nora and Arthur’s relationship seem utterly blissful — but when Hae Sung comes to New York City for a visit, he forces Nora to reckon with all those little coincidences and choices that brought her to this point. Is she truly happy? Is this who she wants to be? And what would have happened to her if her family had never left Korea?
READ MORE: Forgotten ’90s Classics You Need to See
In a previous lifetime, this premise could have served as the basis for a terrific Hollywood melodrama; maybe something starring Marlene Dietrich as a fallen woman reunited with her one true love who’d been separated from her by war or scandal. Filmmaker Celine Song, making about as good a directorial debut as there’s been in the last ten years, takes a different, more muted approach. There are no villains in the love triangle between Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur; no misinterpreted embraces or conversations that lead to confusion and marital strife. There’s just three decent, people trying to make sense of existence, the way all of us do. (All three leads actors are sensational in evoking their characters’ simultaneous feelings of love, loneliness, and uncertainty.)
Rather than lean into exaggerated conflict, Song embraces understatement. And even though her background, like Nora’s, is in playwriting, she clearly understands the difference between making art for the stage and for the screen. She also displays an innate understanding of visual storytelling. Working with cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, she allows the characters to be realistically inarticulate about their feelings, and instead shows their emotions and connections through blocking and framing. Note the body language between Lee and Magaro in the photo above. Consider the physical distance between Magaro and Yoo in that same image. If I hadn’t told you any of Past Lives’ plot, you probably could have intuited a lot of it just from that single picture — something that Past Lives itself considers from its very first scene.
It is not at all surprising to learn that Song based Past Lives at least partly on her own journey as an immigrant and an artist; her approach is far too authentically detailed to be entirely fictional. And yet by making something specific and personal, she has found a way to approach a universal topic.
I don’t have a lot in common with Song beyond the fact that we’re both married and live in New York City. I didn’t come to the United States by way of two other countries; I don’t have some grand lost love in my past waiting to find me on Facebook. But you don’t need to share Celine Song or Nora‘s specific experiences to think about the incomprehensible forces that shape each of our lives.
I could tell you about a robbery at my old apartment on the Lower East Side that led to my entire professional career, or the near-impossible twists that brought my wife and I together despite the fact that we grew up hundreds of miles apart and attended different colleges. In Past Lives, Nora describes “in-yun,” a Korean concept about how two people can be destined to meet because of interactions with one another in past lives. I’d never heard of in-yun before, but it makes total sense to me. How else to explain the situation Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur find themselves in?
It would be an act of critical malpractice to say much more about what happens to this trio, but the ending of this film is both very surprising and entirely logical, and it hit me like the hardest of punches in the gut. However you write its title, Past Lives is a great romance, a great coming-of-age story, a great tale about the ways technology can bring people together (but only so far), a great New York City film, a great story about immigrants — and a great movie, period.