Past Lives: A Riveting Exploration of Time, Connection, and Moving On
Past Lives preview screening provided by StudioCanal
“Past Lives will move you like no other film this year”
Past Lives (2023), the debut feature from playwright Celine Song, is the sort of film that sneaks up and catches you off guard if you’re not prepared for its candid depictions of everyday people doing this thing we call life, and it leaves you feeling either optimistic or a tad wrecked by the time it’s over. It’s a common theme in the films that come from East Asia, where the simple pleasures and displeasures of life, in this case the relationships we form, are laid bare and exposed in the obvious ways audiences might wish similar Western genre films would do.
Song’s film crosses over extended periods of time, with the opening sequence bringing us to modern day New York where we observe three people sitting at a bar while a voice attempts to make sense of their situation and connection to one another. It’s a subtle introduction to the main characters of this film, yet enough to build intrigue for who these people are and what their situation is, before Song jumps back 24 years to a more humble South Korea where we meet two of those characters, the film’s protagonists. Two childhood friends, Nora and Hae Sung have built a close bond, one where they playfully tease each other and just enjoy one another’s company: “I will probably marry him” says Nora, pondering but serious. But just as their sparks are beginning to fly, Nora reveals her family are flying elsewhere, specifically to Canada.
Long stretches of time pass in Song’s film, and each reconnection between the duo at once brings them closer in ways they wouldn’t have thought (seeing each other both through a platonic lens and a ‘what if’ romantic lens), and even farther apart than before (as they face the music that they’re not the same people they once were). Initially, 12 years pass and the now adult Nora (a brilliant Greta Lee) is a budding playwright in her early 20s, while Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) is studying engineering back in South Korea. They reconnect after Nora casually looks up the names of people she once knew, and happens to find out that Hae Sung had tried to reach out to her some months ago.
Song’s film cleverly captures how time passes in an instant; we try to hold on to the high points as much as we can, we’d put them in a bottle if we could, but that’s not how life works. By the time 24 years have passed, Hae Sung, following a visit to New York, accepts that the version of Nora he was infatuated doesn’t exist any more (she even changed her name, almost reinventing herself) aside from in his mind. In other words, things happen for a reason, but that doesn’t mean we have to forget the past, but rather learn to live with the present reality that we’ve been given.
Nora reaches that level of understanding long before Hae Sung, having grown estranged from him after suggesting they stop Skyping each other not long after their first reconnection. In weaker, more corny hands this could be read as an attempt to open the door for a more lovey-dovey reunion later (boy-gets-girl). But instead, Song isolates Nora, showing her desire to outgrow her past and look towards a more realistic future where she isn’t dwelling on what could have been. She later reassures her eventual husband Arthur (a brilliantly subtly John Magaro), in one of the film’s most moving scenes, that she’s just where she needs to be.
While Nora does reconnect with Hae Sung after 24 years, their embrace, especially after they first see each other at a fountain, is much more muted in a way that the best connections with anyone can be: it’s not an awkward silence or embrace, but a mutual one as two people on two different spectrums find solace and comfort in their physical closeness that no amount of chatter could achieve. This is accentuated by the visual language of the film, namely Shabier Kirchner’s very atmospheric, almost meditative cinematography as he lingers on the duo, often cutting to city skylines or puddles of water (as though you’re daydreaming). It really adds to the silence that does often creep into this film, imbuing it with a dreamlike tranquility.
An obvious romance in its portrayal of the fleeting nature of life, Past Lives is as much about accepting the past and not dismissing its impact on ones life, as it is about looking to the future. People come and go in our lives, some leave a small print while others leave an indelible mark, but we keep moving forward, learning to accept that everything is a means to something: our memories, our attachments, our past lives.
Past Lives opens nationally from the 31st of August, 2023.
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