Past Lives (2023)

In the mood for Skype

One of my favorite kinds of films is “two-hander starring attractive people who want to hook up but can’t due to their personal circumstances.” That adult sort of longing for a more fulfilled life, that both they and the viewer know can’t come to fruition without unseating the inertia of the status quo, no matter how much we all — audience and character alike — want it with the full hunger of our hearts, is so stirring. See: Brief Encounter, In the Mood for Love, and Drinking Buddies. (Please send me more recs.)

Past Lives offers a fairly lightweight example of the subgenre, this time compounded with the angst of immigration and cultural displacement. It’s garnered some “best-of-the-year” buzz — see IndieWire and Rolling Stone – but I don’t quite see it, at least in macro. In micro there are some astonishingly lovely moments; and frankly, that’s really what sticks with you in this kind of movie.

The story opens with Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) in the ‘90s as boy-and-girl-next-door best-friends with an emotional sensitivity that suggests future romance. But Na Young immigrates to Canada to become Nora, and the pair lose touch for twelve years. The two reconnect on nascent social media and start Skyping, and it’s obvious before long that they’ve fallen for each other.

This middle segment is the best part of the film, a giddy, blossoming romance in which nostalgia for the past and hope for a harmonious future is blocked only by that tiny problem of living on the opposite side of the world from each other. I distinctly remember the early social media feeling of finding a lost connection and the surge it provided, like sad lost dreams becoming reality for a small flicker.

And then as the film hits its second half, the film pivots once again to something very different. Here’s where I’d advise you stop reading and go check out the film if you haven’t and are planning to; from here on be spoilers.

After Nora and Hae have a confrontation-slash-breakup on video chat, we jump another twelve years in the future with what can be very clearly understood as an act break were this a 100-minute two-act play. Director-writer Celine Song, herself a South Korean-Canadian immigrant and playwright, like Nora, has typically written for the stage in the past, and from here on out, the movie feels like it was designed for that venue. The first sign is that Lee and Yoo hardly look six months older, let alone a decade-plus older, even with makeup and wardrobe changes. This would not be an issue with the distance and abstraction of the stage, but is quite jarring on film. Moreso, the film totally resets its momentum, which would have been less of a problem if we’d just spent 15 minutes using the bathroom and checking Discord on our phones.

This second half of the film is simultaneously the “promise of the premise” — the exact type of Before Sunset reflection on a lost connection that is pure character chemistry; the engine of the romantic drama — and a subversion of that very thing. Nora and her husband, Arthur (John Magaro) are keenly aware and provide ongoing commentary on what’s unfolding, which adds an intriguing, almost postmodern angle the connection between Nora and Hae Sung.

(Tangent: Arthur is described as an author, and we see him at a book signing, where his book is apparently called “Boner,” which comes and goes without commentary. But I have so many questions.)

“Yeah I’d like to buy one copy of…”

For a few scenes during this transition, the film suggests a more elliptical, subjective vision thanks to some disjointed editing and fuzzy cinematography: It suggests perhaps that this second half is imagined, or half-dreamed, by Nora at her crossroads at the act break if she goes down one route in her romantic life. But the film discards this idea pretty quickly: it unfolds objectively (and tenderly) for the duration, to my slight disappointment. These past (and future) lives aren’t quite as deep and poetic as the movie wants them to be.

That’s not to say this second half is bad at all: The movie builds a lingering tension of whether Arthur will snap at the blossoming chemistry between the reconnecting Koreans; or whether Hae Sung will finally make the move he clearly wants to make; or perhaps Nora will submit to her obvious feelings in which the loss of her handsome childhood friend is inseparable from her feelings about her fading cultural roots. There’s a late, quiet scene in which Nora and Hae Sung are waiting for an Uber that is white-knuckle with romantic tension, and it’s one of my favorite scenes of the year

Song clearly has the chops: Past Lives doesn’t look as dull as these indies typically do, proficiently using space and setting to enhance the story. Other than the mid-film lurch, the pacing is quite good: It’s the kind of movie that should feel slow from time to time, yet I never once checked my watch. Grizzly Bear’s immersive, moody score helps.

The actors bring a lot, too. Lee, Yoo, and Magaro are all great, doing more showing than telling, which is surprising given just how much telling of the themes at a symbolic level actually goes on. I honestly can’t even pick a favorite — all three have great interiority and perfectly capture an essence for their respective characters.

It’s no masterpiece and won’t end up #1 on my personal end-of-year list, but Past Lives is lovely little piece of longing, and that’s all I need from it.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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One reply on “Past Lives (2023)”

I’m in a similar place – a high 5, bordering on a 6. I enjoyed the glassy, subdued, low-key aesthetics. Not sure that the emotions reached me all that much.

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