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REVIEW: 'Past Lives' is a meditation on what ifs, destiny, and the road not taken

By Mikhail Lecaros Published Aug 29, 2023 7:07 pm

Warning: This review contains spoilers from Past Lives.

Life is a series of cause and effect, whether as the result of choices made or, frequently more dramatically, ones not taken. Often, the difference between joy and sadness as well as what is and what could have been amounts to little more than a coinflip, with only hindsight to illuminate one’s wisdom—or lack thereof. “What if” forms the central dilemma of writer-director Celine Song’s debut film, Past Lives, a semi-autobiographical drama that drew raves when it bowed at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. 

Past Lives tells the story of Na Young (Greta Lee, The Morning Show, Russian Doll), a South Korean immigrant whose family moved to Canada when she was a child. Twelve years later, Na Young is Nora, an up-and-coming playwright in New York. She looks up her childhood friend Hae Sung (Teo Yoo, New Year Blues, Pawn), and over a series of Skype conversations, the pair discover they’ve lost none of their past chemistry or affection for each other. Life, of course, has a pesky way of intruding, forcing Nora and Hae Sung to go in different directions. Inasmuch as Nora took steps to leave the past and move forward with her career, Hae Sung never gave up hope that they would one day be reunited. 

Twelve more years pass, and Nora is still in Manhattan, married to Arthur (John Magaro, The Umbrella Academy, Orange is the New Black), a fellow writer. It is at this point that Hae Sung decides to take a trip to New York, and see if meeting with Nora will be enough to overcome the what ifs that have separated them thus far. 

Arthur and Nora have their lives upended by the arrival of Nora's childhood sweetheart.

Past Lives is a lyrical rumination that is as poignant as it is soul-searing. Raised in America, Lee may not have full mastery over the Korean language, which is noticeable by the tendency of shots to cut away whenever she has more than a few lines to deliver. But that’s in line with the character—the emotional resonance here stemming from her wordless chemistry with Teo Yoo—and she delivers in spades. The longing between them is palpable, with one yearning for the life he believes he was denied, and the other trying to reconcile her past with her present and, ultimately, her future. The character is decidedly more introverted than we’ve seen from Lee in the past, but she effectively embodies Nora’s conflict with a simmering authenticity. 

On the other side of the equation, Teo Yoo balances lovelorn naiveté with a steadfast stubbornness that comes from having idealized the former Na Young his entire life. He may have had other relationships (as his drinking buddies often remind him), but it’s hard to compete with someone who isn’t there. As Hae Sung heads towards his destiny in Manhattan, it’s impossible not to empathize and wish him well in his quest, however quixotic. 

In this type of narrative, one never wants to be the one standing in the way of true love, but Magaro imbues the potentially thankless role of Nora’s American husband with a sort of wounded dignity that makes us empathize with him. How would you feel if your partner met up with her childhood sweetheart after 24 years of unspoken feelings and unresolved tension? One can only dream of being as strong as Arthur is forced to be here, saddled henceforth with the knowledge that he’s just the consolation prize in his wife’s grand love story. 

Past Lives is a grounded take on the question of how far one would go for a lifelong love.

There's no sweeping romance a la K-drama, it’s not even the knowing comedy of My Best Friend’s Wedding. If anything, the film has more in common with Linklater’s Sunset trilogy than anything else—there are none of the grand gestures, big speeches, or quirky side characters that we’ve been conditioned to expect in films of this type. Song’s screenplay, combined with sincere characterizations that don’t feel like performances, presents us with characters who come across as real people. Well-plotted and paced, she gives her performers space enough to bring their characters to the inevitable, heartbreaking conclusion. While we’re never under any real impression that this will end in anything but tears, the script spares no chance for us (and her characters) to grasp onto a sliver of hope. 

The film ends with a tracking shot that follows Nora along a row of York apartments, the enormity of her decision weighing heavier on each successive step as reality sinks in. The choices that brought her here are many and varied. Life is rarely binary, but on this night, at least, she knows which way her road leads.

Now she has to live with it.

Past Lives opens in Philippine cinemas on Aug. 30. Watch the trailer below.