Directed by: Celine Song
Written by: Celine Song
Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro
Released: August 31, 2023
Grade: A

Past Lives

Past Lives serves up one of the best opening scenes of the year.  It’s 4am in New York City as a group of people, who we never get to see, look across a bar and watch two men and a woman engage in a conversation.  While they can’t hear what’s being said, they’re analysing their facial expressions and body language to speculate about who they are to each other.  It’s a fun, original way to introduce the film’s three leading characters because we, as the audience, can make our own observations in trying to answer the same question.

The film takes place in Manhattan where 30-something-year-olds Nora (Lee) and Arthur (Magaro) are a happily married couple.  They’re creative artists (he’s an author, she’s a playwright) who go about their lives with relative simplicity.  We get a strong sense of their relationship as they lie in bed of an evening having joke-laden, heart-to-heart chats.  It’s rich, honest dialogue!

Nora’s life is upended when a face from the past reaches out.  She grew up in South Korea before emigrating with her family to Canada as a 12-year-old.  Just prior to the move, she developed her first crush on Hae Sung (Yoo), a shy boy from the neighbourhood.  It’s a connection which still resonates.  Despite not having seen each other in person for over two decades, the unmarried Hae Sung has decided to visit the United States for the first time and is keen to spend time with the girl, now woman, he has never forgotten.

The pair spend a couple of days together exploring New York City with Nora playing host and showing Hae Sung popular landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and Jane’s Carousel.  Their slightly awkward interactions provide the film’s heart and soul.  It’s like Sliding Doors but without the visualisation.  There’s a clear bond between the pair which has them, and us, wondering about what life might have been like if Nora had not left South Korea as a youngster.  Would they have ended up together?  Or was it just a fleeting childhood infatuation?  It also taps into the theme about the way we “clutch onto” events from our past and look at them through different lenses over time.

Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Celine Song, Past Lives has been touted as an awards season contender since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January 2023.  The hype is justified.  It’s a beautiful drama which highlights both the simplicity and complexity of the human condition.  Feelings are instinctive but the way we then deal with those feelings is fraught with possibilities and challenges.

Greta Lee (Russian Doll) and Teo Yoo (Leto) are brilliant as Nora and Hae Song.  They have created interesting characters where, despite their intelligence, neither is fully in control of their emotions as the interactions progress.  Song adds to the film’s intimate feel with a guitar-laden soundtrack, and the use of long, unedited takes during key conversations.  As highlighted by the film’s unforgettable final scene, the streets of Manhattan also have a part to play in enhancing the material.

Past Lives is not to be missed.

You can read my chat with director Celine Song by clicking here.