Past Lives

In 1999, we meet 12 year-old best friends Na Young (Moon Seung-ah) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) walking home from school, he affectionately calling her a ‘psycho’ for being in tears over having lost to him scholastically for the first time.  At home, Na Young’s mom (Ji Hye Yoon) asks her who she likes and arranges a ‘date’ with her choice, Hae Sung, an effort to create a memory before the family immigrates to Toronto.  When the two get to their fork in the road on Na Young’s last day in South Korea, it is obviously symbolic, but their paths will cross again as adults who share “Past Lives.”

Laura's Review: A

Ever wonder about the proverbial ‘one that got away,’ that first love wistfully recalled later in life?  Writer/director Celine Song, a playwright making her feature debut, tells a simple but emotionally rich story based on her own experience of a connection interrupted but never broken, a sentimental tale in the true sense of the word.

Guided by her speculative theme, Song begins her film almost at its end, but from the perspective of two unseen strangers observing Na Young, now called Nora (Greta Lee, TV's 'Russian Doll'), sitting in between Hae Sung (Teo Yoo, "Decision to Leave") and her husband Arthur (John Magaro, "First Cow," "Showing Up") at a NYC bar.  What is the relationship among these three, the couple wonders, never arriving anywhere near the correct answer.

After a brief interlude depicting the Moon family arriving in Toronto, we skip 12 years into the future.  Nora is in an English literature class, living in a small NYC apartment while back in Korea, Hae Sung is serving his mandatory army service (we will frequently also see Hae Sung out drinking soju with three male friends).  Nora chats with her mom on the phone and discovers Hae Sung has been inquiring about her on her filmmaker father’s Facebook page.  A short while later they reconnect via Skype and, after their amusing ‘woahs’ at seeing each other again, they quickly fall back into the easy familiarity they once shared.  Catching up, Hae Sung learns Nora is a playwright while she discovers he’s an engineering student.

As the singsong Skype alert begins to interrupt Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s light jazz score more frequently, Nora realizes this reconnection is making her yearn for her homeland just when she very much wants to commit to New York and so she tells the heartbroken Hae Sung that it is time to take a break.  She goes on a writer’s retreat in Montauk where she meets Arthur and tells him about In-Yun, the Korean belief that no meeting is by accident.  Twelve years later with Hae-Sung about to pay a visit that will be his and Nora’s first communication in that time, Arthur will express his concerns that maybe this man, who shares a common language and history he will never know, maybe had been her fate.  Nora reassures him that she is exactly where she was meant to be.

‘Woah’ will be her greeting upon meeting the handsome man who clearly has made the long trip to see her and while their conversation is relaxed as they hit NYC tourist spots, she will bring him home to meet Arthur, Hae Sung, growing awkward, surprised to be greeted in Korean by the American.  There is tension between these two who love different aspects of the same woman, but they also discover they like each other, Arthur allowing the reunion to proceed without interfering, that moment at the bar revisited. 

John Magaro may, in some ways, play the third wheel here, but that would be the cliché Song is not interested in and the actor walks a delicate balance between obvious love for his wife and wavering confidence.  We’re never sure just how much he understands as Nora and Hae-Sung converse in Korean, but watching his face, we can guess.  Lee is confident as Nora, yet in the climactic long take by “Small Axe” cinematographer Shabier Kirchner which ends the film, we can feel all the pent up emotion between she and Yoo’s Hae Sung as they walk down the street to wait for his Uber, turning to face one another but standing apart, the opposite of the long embrace she greeted him with.  That is left for Arthur, waiting on the stoop for her return to comfort the loss she now acknowledges.  “Past Lives” is a moving and romantic film about love, choice and change.

Robin's Review: B

Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae-Sung (Teo Yoo) were childhood best friends until her family immigrated to Canada and they lost touch. A decade later, he looks her up on the internet and they begin a long-distance rekindling of “Past Lives.”

The title cleverly gives us two very different meanings. One is the Korean Buddhist belief in reincarnation – that we each have lived/experienced 8000 previous lives. The other is the very real past lives of Nora and Hae-Sung – and we live through three with them.

The story, like their lives, is in three parts: when Nora and Hae were young and innocent, a decade later when they first get in touch and, again, two decades hence and Nora is married to American writer Arthur (John Magaro).

Nora and Hae-sung’s reuniting and rekindling of their past life as kids should cause consternation for the viewer in what could be a love triangle story. But, “Past Lives” is not that. It is a story of a friendship that began in childhood and is resurrected many years later. It just so happens that Nora is also happily married to Arthur.

First-time feature film writer-director Celine Song makes an assured debut in this three hander that centers on the long-time friendship of the two Koreans and the life Nora has made with Arthur. As the story unfolds, we watch these three lives intertwine in unexpected ways. It is a satisfying debut from a new talent.

A24 opens "Past Lives" in NY and LA theaters on June 2, 2023, expanding on June 9, 2023.