Film Review

Past Lives

todayJuly 6, 2023 63 2

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By – Gareth Jones

For fans of thoughtful, sensitive, slower cinema like Minari or Moonlight or the work of Kelly Reichardt and Chloe Zhou. Stories about human connections and life changing decisions.  Elegant cinema..

I saw Past Lives for the first time at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.  It was a magical screening and I left Utah confident that this was the best film at the festival.  However, I always like to see these films a second time to make sure I was not caught up in the atmosphere of the festival.  I am pleased to report that I loved it even more the second time, this time with my wife.

Celine Song has had a successful career as a playwright and has masterfully transitioned into a writer/director of film.  This is a deeply personal film with autobiographical elements. She uses the Korean concept of ”in yun” to frame the film. This idea of destiny or fate controlling our lives in the past, present, and future is universal. Here, it tells the story of Nora and Hae Sung separated into three time periods or acts. We first meet them in South Korea, when they fall in love as 12 year olds.  They are competitive in school but have a strong, natural bond. Nora is about to move to Canada with her family and Nora’s mother sets up one last date between the two so that Nora can have good memories of South Korea. The natural performances in this section are beautifully presented and choreographed in the landscape of Seoul.  We then jump twelve years into the future where they meet again, this time online through social media. Here, the adult performances of Greta Lee as Nora and Teo Yoo as Hae Sung continue the story in sublime fashion.  They perfectly present the struggles and challenges of an online, long-distance relationship.  The story then jumps twelve more years to the first visit to New York for Hae Sung.  The complexity of emotions in this sequence is staggering.  They are joined by John Magaro, last seen in Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. The acting of all three in this section is rich, nuanced, and perceptive.  Each bring’s a range of emotions and expressions that fit together like handmade wooden puzzle pieces. Their performances are all about what is not said, even though they have been given poetic dialogue.

Celine Song’s understanding of the film medium is so accomplished. She already knows what to show instead of saying, while still having succinct dialogue.  Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner (who created equally stunning images in Steve McQueen’s epic mini-series Small Axe) captures the small moments that complement the dialogue in time of each section.  There is a balance of light and dark, inside and outside, mirroring the duality of the decisions made by the characters. The music is composed by Grizzly Bear’s Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen who reunite here and craft an emotive yet simple score.  There is also a new song by Sharon Van Etten.  In all cases, these independent musicians are an astute pairing with the themes of the film.

Past Lives is already a frontrunner for the Oscar race, and I am hopeful that it continues to get the well-deserved attention. I feel strongly that it will remain my favorite film of 2023.  


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Written by: Gareth Jones

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