Review: Past Lives

Past Lives is the directorial debut feature of Celine Song, and one of the best films of the year. After making its premier at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and garnering positive reviews from critics  it’s now in theaters. Past Lives is a meditative, slow film about first love that has been lost, the immigration experience, and of the nature of relationships. Take the first scene of the film where Nora (Greta Lee) is sitting at the bar alongside her first love, Hae Sung (Yoo Teo), and her husband, Arthur (John Magaro). From a distance, there is an audio overlay of bar patrons trying to analyze their relationship, and hypothesizing where everyone fits into Norah’s world. As the camera gets closer to Nora’s face, she looks directly at the audience, possibly signifying that she has finally heard the conversation that the bar patrons are having about the two men seated next to her. Central to the film’s plot is the relationship between Nora and Hae Sung, a friendship that has turned to romance since childhood. Despite the fact that Nora is now married to Arthur, they keep on finding each other at different moments in their lives. 

The story begins in South Korea, where the ambitious and outgoing Nora, is foiled by the diffident Hae Sung. Song uses their differences as a catalyst for developing their deep friendship. What starts out as a platonic friendship, grows into romantic love as Nora develops feelings. All of this transpires while knowing Nora will be leaving soon with her family to emigrate to Toronto. Nora seems to be excited about going, however, it seems that Hae Song isn’t ready to bid farewell. A few years pass and both characters have different life experiences. For instance, Hae Song continues forth with his life while being in the army and having fleeting romances. Nora is on the other end of the globe in New York, studying theater and writing. By chance Nora finds Hae Song over Facebook and the two reconnect and start a long distance relationship, but at a certain point it becomes overwhelming for Nora, who wants to take a break. She goes to a writer's retreat where she meets Arthur for the first time,  and they develop a relationship. Hae Song, wanting to reconnect with Nora, finally decides to take a trip to New York, where they spend a week exploring the city together, reminiscing on their past lives with each other. While Nora is happily married to Arthur, things complicate when her childhood friend, who she’s had a deep connection with, re-enters her life. This is one of the poignancies of Past Lives

How Song keeps the production tight for an honest and raw performance is also to be noted, and is comparable to performances in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy; such as when Hae Sung and Arthur meet for the first time. The tension between both of the leads and Arthur was well built up. Where most directors would take this story and heighten the drama to create tension of a woman torn between two men, Song takes a meditative approach on the relationship, shifting the lens more so on the experience of having a first love and the passage of time. I implore you to seek out Past Lives when it arrives at your theater this summer. 

Remi co-host’s  At The Movies, which can be heard every Tuesday morning from 8:00 - 9:00AM. Tune in for discussions about movies, soundtracks, and iconic film scores. At The Movies also covers film festivals that are located in Montreal.