• Wed. Sep 27th, 2023
A man and a woman sit in front of a fairground carousel looking at each other.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“There’s a word in Korean. In-yeon. It means providence or fate.” This is the premise for Celine Song’s remarkable directorial feature debut Past Lives, a romantic drama about possibility and missed connections. Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) are childhood sweethearts, but when Nora immigrates from South Korea to Canada what could have been between them is cut short. As the two regain connection again over the years, they ponder what could have been in this subtly profound story.

           Past Lives is a film crafted purely on the theoretical; extraordinarily, Song manages to make a story about a story that never happened. Caught in a love triangle between would-be boyfriend Hae Song and her husband Arthur (John Magaro) there is one instance where Nora apologizes to Hae Sung, to which he replies, “what for?” Similarly, when Nora asks her husband Arthur if he is mad at her for seeing Hae Sung, he says “No, I have nothing to be mad about.” All the same, Nora’s interactions with Hae Sung are emotionally charged not because of what has happened between them but because of what could have and here lies the film’s emotional core. It’s complicated, and confusing to mourn something that never was and yet this rumination and grief for what could have been is one we are all familiar with. In Past Lives, Song lends space and sensitivity to the concept of lost possibility that is a fundamental part of our consciousness and human experience.

From a surface level perspective, a story about a happily married successful writer who lives in New York city is not an urgent story that needs to be told. But Past Lives works on a more metaphysical level. The story is not held together by a plot so much as an emotional center in a way that is comparable to Roger Ebert’s description of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which is referenced by Nora in the film). Song’s approach to film making is key to making this abstract story work. It is gentle, non-judgemental, and most importantly observational. The camera merely observes as conversations are allowed to wind their natural path and re-connections and revelations come quietly and in a way that feels natural. This sensitive approach to the story is buttressed by the understatedly profound performances from all the cast as well as its soft-focus cinematography.  

While Past Lives focuses on the idea of soul mates and missed opportunities pertaining to romantic partners, Nora’s missed opportunity with Hae Sung is inextricably linked to her immigration to Canada. The central question of Past Lives is, after all: what if I’d stayed? When Nora’s mother is asked by a friend why she is choosing to give up everything she has in Korea, she replies that when you lose something you also gain something. While immigrants are expected to only express gratitude for opportunities they have in new countries, there is seldom expression of the loss they experience. A loss of something you never had is difficult to pinpoint, but here, Song manages to communicate this loss and its strangeness acutely.

When Nora finally bids Hae Sung farewell for what they both know to be the last time in New York, you’d hope that one declares their love for the other, or that they kiss, as would be the perfect end to this story. But they don’t, and Nora comes crashing back to reality in Arthur’s arms. Here lies the devastating, but also the therapeutic nature of Past Lives. Song doesn’t create an ideal fantasy fairy tale for the audience to relieve their own anguish over missed connections and possibility. Although heart-breaking, Past Lives fulfills the purpose of all meaningful art: it tells a truth about what it means to be human. And that is no small feat.

Past Lives UK release date is 8th September 2023.

Image issued to The Student for press material by The Corner Shop PR.