We all have someone that feels like they were made for us. It could be a partner, a family member, or someone you once met a long time ago. Maybe you’ve known them your whole life or maybe you looked up one day and they were already gone. Past lives is about those people. It is about the person you used to be, the dreams you used to have, and what you leave behind to fulfil them.
Childhood sweethearts Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) are separated when Nora’s family emigrates from Korea to Canada. 24-years later the two finally reunite, both have separately fallen in love and built lives, but neither one has forgotten the other. So begins a sprawling story of missed chances, destiny, and choice in Celine Song’s gentle directorial debut, Past Lives.
“Song is not trying to prove that she is emotionally intelligent with big words, she just is.”
“If you leave something behind you gain something too,” says Nora’s mother, as she watches her 12-year-old daughter say goodbye to a boy that will soon be her past. It’s a wistful reflection on the nature of sacrifice for ambition and sets a tone of longing that affects the entire film.
Written and directed by Celine Song, the dialogue is light and airy but still manages to convey the deep canyon of emotion between the film’s protagonists. Song is not trying to prove that she is emotionally intelligent with big words, she just is.
It is almost scary that this is Song’s first crack at feature filmmaking. It is mature in storytelling and breathtaking in vision. Shot on 35mm film by BAFTA-winning cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, Past Lives looks like those warm hazy memories of summer. It practically glows on the screen giving each scene an instant tinge of romanticism. Never has artificial light felt so intimate. The all-nighter aesthetics of New York and Seoul have bridged the 11,047 km gap for gorgeous results.
“Greta Lee proves she has always had what it takes to be a leading lady.”
Star Greta Lee has made a career of playing the loveable goofball in small but mighty supporting roles. Her turn as the fun best friend in Russian Doll (2019) and AI assistant Lyla in Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse were sparkler performances amid firework projects. But in Past Lives she finally gets to shine, proving she has always had what it takes to be a leading lady.
She feels effortlessly cool without trying to. Her voice is intelligent and smooth without a hint of pretension. Although this is a love story, Her character is never judged for her ambition or matter-of-fact outlook on love. Lee has grounded Nora, giving her a touch of reality in a story that could feel written in the stars.
Her dynamic between Hae-Sung and her husband Arthur, Teo Yoo and John Magaro, is captivating. They all yearn for something from each other, but they do so without expectation of requited feelings. It is a completely egoless relationship they all share, and it is a comfort to watch.
Past Lives is an instant classic wrapped in a modern love tale. For anyone lying awake thinking about that person they once knew, watch Past Lives for a story to soothe the soul.
Past Lives is out in UK cinemas on 30 August 2023.
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Featured Image Credit; A24