Past Lives

Directed By Celine Song

Starring – Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro

The Plot – Nora (Lee) and Hae Sung (Yoo), two deeply connected childhood friends, are wrest apart after Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. 20 years later, they are reunited for one fateful week as they confront notions of love and destiny.

Rated PG-13 for some strong adult language

(5) Past Lives | Official Trailer HD | A24 – YouTube


In what is impressively Song’s directorial debut, full of profound philosophical outlooks on life, love and especially fate, she conjures an immigration love story that is every bit sweetly sincere as it is regretfully heart-aching, with some of the most believable characters that I have seen put to print in the entirety of this cinematic year. In terms of material, our story immersively sifts through three respective time periods in the lives of her star-crossed protagonists, all refreshingly articulated in timely order, and each with nearly no flashbacks to halt progression on the investment of the narrative. In addition to this, the script and the dialogue itself is full of so many unique conversations and thought-provoking talking points that it continuously rewards audiences for being so invested to the plights of the characters’ respective dynamics, with little bits of exposition or psychology imbedded into something as small as a look or even the way a sentence is constructed and unloaded in the integrity of the scene. Song is certainly someone who swims in the intepretation of silence, both in the heavy exchanges of her characters, but also in the moments when Nora and Hae-Sung are apart from one another, outlining this alarmingly suffocating element in atmosphere between them that not only speaks volumes about the perfect fit that each of them to supplant to their respective lives, but also the suffering of longing between them that frequently feels like it could tear each of them apart in any given depiction. The characters are also refreshingly original and free from the kind of cliche’d outlines that allow audiences to feel like they know everything about them in a single solitary sequence. This is especially the case for Magaro’s Arthur, who avoids playing the jealous boyfriend type, and instead embraces the rich and torturous history of Nora and Hae-Sung, and everything that comes with it that he has unknowingly inherited. In a typical romantic film, we would be wholheartedly embracing the idea of these two longtime friends getting back together with one another, regardless of how much it hurts Arthur, but because he’s written with so much compassion and understanding, you start to understand that he’s a legitimately good person, and one caught directly in the middle of time and especially timing that now challenge his peaceful existence. Besides substance, style is also firmly prominent in Song’s transfixing direction, both in the balance of ambitious framing techniques and long-takes that help us to absorb more of the complexities in every atmosphere, but also the vibrancy of the background imagery from cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, of Korea and New York itself, which vividly convey the monumental differences and geographic proximity of the world’s apart that the characters feel mentally as well as physically. Likewise, the musical score here from the dream team-up of Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen gives the film’s many emotionally charged sequences an overhanging cloud of complex spontaneity that often pays off tremendously with the warmth and radiance of Lee and Yoo at the forefront of so many memorable exchanges, all without intruding in on their mesmerizing chemistry with one another. On that front, the film is remarkably acted by Lee and Yoo, who often say and challenge so much with a single look or expression, just out of the vantage point of the other’s vision. Lee in particular constructs a dual identity in Nora that is exuded brilliantly in the way she approaches each of her male cohorts, with her time spent with Hae-Jung bringing ingredients of energy and excitement to embrace the carelessness of her childhood, and her time with Arthur supplanting her demeanor with maturity and cadence of the adulthood variety. Yoo himself is also no slouch, imbedding so much vulnerability and internal longing to Hae-Jung that not only empathetically forces you to indulge in his perspective, but also challenge yourself to see just how far this character is willing to sacrifice for everything that he has waited over twenty years to capitalize on. Seperately, they each maintain urgency in the narrative, as well as attention in the audience, but together the sparks fly between them in picking up quite literally where they last left off, cementing what is easily my favorite on-screen couple in a romance film since Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy organically brought to life the characters of Jesse and Celine in the Before trilogy that have immortalized Richard Linklater.


Not very much to complain about with this slice of near perfection, but there are a couple of small nitpicks that I wish were better utilized to lead to a more prominent outcome in the finished product. Firstly, I wish certain relationships were more thoroughly fleshed out to further define the stakes and circumstances within the movie’s conflict. The first aspect is in the first act depiction of Nora and Hae-Jung as a children, where their love and bond for one another initially began. Because the film clocks in at a brief 100 minutes, it keeps the urgency of the events firmly in tow, sacrificing aspects like this one, which could’ve greater illustrated the tragic aspect of Nora’s untimely move to America. The second underutilized angle is in the relationship of Nora and Arthur, which definitely received more emphasis than the aforementioned usage of the child-time protagonists. but not nearly enough to enhance the uncertainty of Nora’s inevitible decision, which will have her saying goodbye to her future or her past. The script does a great job showcasing what Nora means to Arthur, but never vice versa, and because of such we only understand her union with him as the completion of the American dream, instead of him supplanting her with what her life’s missing, and it’s a bit unfortunate considering Arthur plays such a vital role in establishing much of the movie’s conflict. Besides this, my only other issue was a personal problem that I had with the movie’s ending, particularly the final shot, that I wish Song would’ve capitalized on, especially since she makes it such a vocal talking point in the comparison between Nora’s time with Arthur compared to her time with Hae-Jung. Without spoiling anything, two characters going to see the Statue of Liberty together was so perfect of an ending that it practically wrote itself, and failing to do so feels like a major missed opportunity in the benefit of the movie’s parting feelings.

“Past Lives” is that rare romantic gem that permeates brightly without the need for timely-turbulent tropes or one-dimensional characters corroding its conflict. With the impeccable cinematic debut of Celine Song imbedding the genre with originality or complexity in her many philosophically profound talking points, or the unshakeable sizzle of Greta Lee and Teo Yoo’s spine-tingling chemistry, the film is a testament to the rarity of generation-defining love, and the limitless miles those of us travel to get it back.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

6 thoughts on “Past Lives

  1. A24 doesn’t disappoint yet again. Chemistry plays a major part in the romantic genre and sounds like it’s been perfectly cast. Great review!

  2. Wow! What a great review! It is rare that you have a love triangle where all parties are likable, and where you have an emotional investment in the outcomes of the choices made throughout the film. I also like the fact that these characters are not cardboard cutouts where you can see where every turn is going to go. This one sounds like a winner!

  3. I really hope to see this soon! Your review and what I’ve been hearing makes me believe this will be one of my favorites of the year. So lucky that this year we get such gems like this and Rye Lane for the romance genre! How spoiled are we? Thank you for reviewing this! It’ll be at the top of my watch list until I can coordinate things right on my end to see it in a theater (what it deserves!)

  4. Wow…just wow. What a gentle and tender film that left a devastating impact on me. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a romance film that has impressed me this much, but this movie truly lived up to the hype and you gave it the elegant review that it deserved. I basically with everything you mentioned. The performances, direction, camerawork, storytelling, and overall themes are absolutely sublime and I can tell that this is really high up on your yearly ranking. Excellent work!

    1. Well romantic films are definitely not my favorite genre, but this is one I will definitely see with the fiance. Thank you for introducing me to this so I can have a recommendation ready.

  5. I think its no coincidence that I chose to read this review directly after I commented on “Love Again”
    Now I know you have magic movie connoisseur powers xD
    I am definitely excited to watch this one now ^_^

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