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Past Lives (Film Review)

4 min read

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.

It's difficult to settle on an introductory point with a film like – an elegant story of connection from playwright-turned-writer/director that, whilst spread over a period of twenty-four years, is actually concentrated at certain points within its protagonists' timelines. But, to begin at the beginning, as they say.

A conversation between strangers speculates on the nature of the relationship between three people sitting opposite them in a New York city bar at 4am. Twenty-four years earlier in South Korea, we meet classmates Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), two pre-pubescent teens with a connection in its infancy. Na Young is competitive and ambitious, frustrated when Hae Sung (finally) comes ahead of her in a school exam. Hae Sung is self-deprecating, perhaps recognising his ordinariness – and by extension Na Young's extraordinariness – early on. There are unmistakable signs that he may forever be in her orbit. But just like that, their budding romance is interrupted when Na Young's family emigrate to Toronto, Canada where she settles on her new ‘English name' Nora.

Studiocanal / A24

Twelve years later Nora, now a budding playwright settled in New York City, discovers Hae Sung has been trying to find her on social media and the pair reconnect through exquisitely written late-night/early-morning Skype calls that feel as natural as breathing. After more than two years of a global pandemic, the intimacy of these blurry conversations should be painfully recognisable to most. Having completed his mandatory military service, Hae Sung is living at home in South Korea awaiting his trip to China for an exchange programme. Nora too, is in limbo, due to attend an exclusive writer's retreat. Neither seems willing to sacrifice their upcoming opportunity in order to make what would be a long journey and a leap of faith. And here it ends, with Nora slipping out of Hae Sung's life once again as she arrives ahead of his schedule at a point of recognition.

There's a maturity to Nora that seems closely aligned with her progress towards professional development and assimilation and as such, Hae Sung's allure appears firmly rooted in nostalgia and a longing for home – wherever that may be. Neither a child when she left, nor a woman, Nora's connection to her country of birth remains complicated. Extraordinary even. By extension, Hae Sung is a part of that. Burned by their (online) separation, Hae Sung seems a little stunted by his military service where time spent as a young man may inevitably feel like a delay on starting life. Their timelines don't seem to match up.

At her writer's retreat, Nora introduces the Korean concept of in-yeon to Arthur (John Magaro), a fellow writer, where the belief is held that a meeting with anyone, even fleeting, implies a meaningful connection in a past life. Nora uses it as a pick-up line, but there is the implication that she remains torn between her new life in New York and the cultural traditions of her heritage. Her place as an artist resides confidently in New York, but there has been no closure to the formative years she had in South Korea. Her missed opportunities with Hae Sung seem to extend this connection whilst simultaneously holding off any closure she might gain. Not nothing, but never quite something, Hae Sung is from an early chapter of the same story. He is an alluring what-if – representing the world of fate and the beautiful romanticism of in-yeon. And yet, Song seems more than willing to display the practical difficulties of love and relationships, whether it be the time difference between South Korea and America or the signal dropping on a video call, romance can only overcome so much. Arthur is the logical choice.

Studiocanal / A24

Another dozen years and the story leaps forward one last time as Hae Sung visits Nora in New York. When they finally touch, 24 years on from adolescent fingers brushing against one another, it's in the form of a warm embrace that seems to both capture and extinguish their mutual longing. It feels like the melancholic climax of a sexual encounter, one capable of releasing people from a connection built up over time. As they traverse New York, Hae Sung seems extremely Korean, part familiar, part alien. He is a tourist in her life. And yet at times, Nora is able to sink into fluent nostalgia, or act as a cultural translator between Arthur and Hae Sung. She bridges the gap between her two worlds in the same way that two paths can eventually coalesce into one. It's closure of sorts. Song handles the awkwardness of this brief romantic triangle deftly, never falling into fireworks and instead relying heavily on a millennial politeness that feels true to life. It's gentle – maybe a little too soft at times. But Past Lives is intricate and careful in a way that's hard to resist.

Past Lives releases in UK cinemas on September 8th