Review of Past Lives
“[In-Yun] means providence or fate,” says Nora Moon to her future husband right before their first kiss. A canopy of string lights hanging from the tall Montauk trees surround them, encasing them in their perfect moment and yet, this isn’t the love story audiences are attracted to.
Distributed by entertainment darling A24 and produced by Killer Films and CJ O SHOPPING, Past Lives has already been dubbed by many film critics as the best movie of the year or at least the most heart-wrenching one.
Following the intimate lives of Na Young (Greta Lee) and Sae Hung (Teo Yoo), we watch as their childhood friendship sprouts into young love before Na Young (who changes her name to Nora) and her family immigrates from Korea, leaving Hae Sung behind.
The film shows our two main character’s paths converging at different points in their lives and how they are connected to one another even when far apart, artfully and meticulously dissecting the phenomenon of “meant to be.”
The astounding directorial debut comes from playwright and screenwriter Celine Song. Song has mentioned that the film is inspired by experiences she’s had in her own life. She’s even cherry-picked some of these moments and transported them into the film.
The opening scene of the film where Nora is sitting with her husband Arthur (John Magaro) and Hae Sung at a bar while an off-screen couple debates their affiliations immediately immerses you into the lives of these characters without even hearing them speak.
This incredible introduction was inspired by a similar setting where Song was translating conversations between her American husband and her childhood sweetheart.
“Something extraordinary was happening in that bar that really stuck with me and I think that really was the start of why I wanted to make this movie,” Song says.
In this serendipitous moment, Song noticed other patrons glancing their way, “like who the hell are these people to each other? It just made me feel like…oh man, what if I could tell you?”
Coming from a writing background and like Nora, being the daughter of two Korean Artists, Song’s dialogue comes through as poetic prose but not so dense and artistic that it doesn’t sound realistic.
Every pause, breath, and stammer from each character feels purposeful yet so organic. The fluidity of each scene and the conversations contained within them will surely have you feeling like you’re watching real people’s lives unfold in front of you.
Not a single performance is dull from Lee’s playful ambition that she brings to Nora to Yoo’s insightful longing that he delivers with Hae Sung. Magaro also balances the line between supportive and awkward that one would feel if their partner saw their childhood sweetheart after a decade.
BAFTA winning cinematographer Shabier Kirchner beautifully illustrates the various environments and spaces our characters find themselves in. From scenic cityscapes to observant angles, the camera appears as our window into this delicate story.
The switching between shallow and deep depth of field unconsciously keys viewers into the magnitude of distance and closeness and when it really matters. Each shot is reminiscent of a painting and creates a visual marvel alongside a relatively simple yet intensely personal story.
Like turning the pages of an irresistible novel, the tearful ending of Past Lives may sneak up on you and leave you thinking about the moments, accidental and intentional, that have led you to your current path.
In an increasingly chaotic and unstable world, it’s a message so comforting yet so existential and it’s one that’s necessary to explore. Many films have scratched the surface of these themes but Past Lives plunges into the uncharted depths with a rare poignant elegance.
Whether you’re a believer in the idea of In-Yun or not, Past Lives will remind you of the exceptional nature of love, life and everything else that surrounds being human.