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Review: Past Lives (2023)

Past Lives (2023)

Directed by: Celine Song

Premise: Nora and Hae Sung were close friends as children in South Korea until Nora’s family emigrated to the United States. As adults, Nora and Hae Sung reconnect and try to reconcile their relationship.

What Works: Past Lives is a romantic drama about the deepness of human relationships and how timing can shape our connections and choices. Although the story is ostensibly a romantic triangle, Past Lives is not about a woman choosing between two suitors. She’s already made that choice and married her husband. What’s at stake isn’t really romantic love but rather the possibilities of different life paths and the profound connection between two people. That’s a vague idea and the film is appropriately understated but the desires and tensions between the characters are completely clear. Filmmaker Celine Song does a great job using framing to reveal the subtext. The narrative structure is also impressive. The story is told slightly out of order and manages big leaps in time but in a way that strengthens the connections between scenes especially in the way the story sketches the evolution Nora and Hae Sung’s friendship. One of Past Lives’ great strengths is the performances by the core cast. Greta Lee plays Nora, a woman who emigrated from South Korea to the United States and whose identity is split between those cultures. She’s now a successful playwright and married to Arthur, a white American novelist played by John Magaro. By all evidence their marriage is solid but it becomes strained when Nora reconnects with Hae Sung, her childhood friend played by Teo Yoo. Much like the filmmaking, the performances of Past Lives are appropriately understated and yet the actors unmissably convey the characters’ anxieties. This is a smart and mature exploration of love and relationships with a conclusion in which very little overtly happens and yet the ending is emotionally wringing.

What Doesn’t: The conflict of Past Lives never bubbles over in an overtly dramatic way that we’re used to seeing in romantic dramas. Hollywood films of this sort would typically culminate in a grand gesture or a race to the airport. This is a subtler film than that and it’s the right choice for this material. However, the husband is very passive. His discomfort is evident in John Magaro’s performance and that creates tension. The film might have benefitted from bringing Arthur forward but Past Lives is ultimately about Nora and Hae Sung. The only flaws of Past Lives are a few moments in which the film treads on self-awareness such as a scene in which the husband describes their situation in storytelling terms. These bits of dialogue play a little too on the nose with the filmmakers explaining what they are doing.

Bottom Line: Past Lives is wonderful filmmaking. This is an excellent example of accomplishing more with less. Past Lives gets beyond the formulas we’re accustomed to seeing in romantic pictures and digs into the real and complicated nature of love and relationships.

Episode: #956 (July 9, 2023)