Let’s be honest, we all enjoy being a little nosy when it comes to other people. Let’s take the opening scene of the delightful ‘Past Lives‘ and the favourite pastime of people watching.

From across a bar, we hear a couple eavesdropping on the trio of people sitting on the other side. An Asian man, an Asian woman, and a white man—you can see that things appear uncomfortable between them. The unknown voices attempt to figure out the relationship between them. They probably wish they were sitting closer, eavesdropping on the conversation to see if it involves extramarital affairs.

The scene plays nicely into our voyeuristic tendencies, as the film’s title suggests. It piques our curiosity about who the three people are, and Celine Song‘s delicate drama invites us to join them. The film explores themes of star-crossed lost love, emotional dilemmas, and possibly even fate.

Spanning over a 24 year period, we find Seoul South Korea as our starting point. We meet 12 year old Na Young (Moon Seung-ah) and Hae-sung (Seung Min-yim) who laugh, share, hold hands, walk home together from school.

Na Young says to her mum, ‘I’ll marry him,’ referring to Hae-Sung. However, her artist parents have different plans as they emigrate to Toronto, Canada. That dream is torn apart, and in one final scene, the youngsters walking home from school reach a crossroads, not just in reality, in life too. They part ways visually upset, without a word being uttered.

Another 12 years have passed. Na Young is now called Nora (Greta Lee), also a creative writing student living in New York. Hae-Sung (Teo Yoo) is still in Seoul, having just finished military service and now attending university to study engineering. The pair is once again reunited, this time through Skype calls, emails, and they quickly pick up as if it were just last week.

Once again, the pair stops chatting, and we find ourselves in another time jump of 12 years. Nora has established herself as a playwright and is married to Arthur (John Magaro), whom she met at a writers’ retreat. Hae-sung is an engineer, and the pair resumes their conversation, with Hae-sung finally coming to New York. Nora suspects that the visit is more than just a holiday.

Film is for everyone. We all know it’s a multi-headed monster called ‘genres,’ and we won’t always agree on every choice. Personally, ‘Past Lives‘ is one of my favourite films of 2023.

It’s hard to believe this is Celine Song’s directorial feature debut. As I mentioned earlier, ‘Personal,’ this film carries the director’s personal touch. It’s inspired by her own life story, which saw her emigrate to Canada from South Korea. It even includes a scenario similar to the opening bar scene that we now know introduces our three main protagonists.

The film’s title plays a significant role in the story. ‘In-Yun‘ is a Korean belief that we are all connected and that two people can meet in many timelines. Nora explains this concept to Arthur, and when she meets Hae-sung, she reminds him that she is not the same person he knew in South Korea.

Lee and Yoo are fantastic in their own unique ways. Lee is measured and even questions Nora’s own Korean identity. When she’s with Hae-Sung, whom Arthur calls ‘very Korean,’ she feels like she has lost what made her traditionally Korean. Yoo, as Hae-Sung, remains unemotional, still resembling a boy unable to unearth his true feelings. When both walk around New York, they have much to share but seem split, as if they are still on a video chat. We mustn’t forget Magaro, who is superb as Arthur. He handles the discomfort of his wife’s closeness to Hae-Sung with honour, at the same time inviting him over to his home.

Past Lives might be a slow-burning drama that portrays intimacy and turmoil with great finesse. It’s as much about love as it is about the choices we make in life. The journey we embark upon will always be filled with delights, yet it’s also one with many bumps, regrets, and emotions.

★★★★★

Drama | USA/South Korea, 2023 | 12 | Blu-ray, DVD | 4th December 2023 (UK) | StudioCanal | Dir: Celine Song | Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro | Related: Watch Celine Song Video Interview |




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The founder of The People’s Movies, started the site 20th November 2008.The site has excelled past all expectations with many only giving the site months and it’s still going strong. A lover of French Thrillers, Post Apocalyptic films, Asian cinema. 2009 started Cinehouse to start his ‘cinema education’ learning their is life outside mainstream cinema. Outside of film, love to travel with Sorrento, Guangzhou and Manchester all favourite destinations.Musically loves David Bowie, Fishbone, Radiohead.





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