Past Lives

“This is my life and I’m living it.”

“Are you happy with it?”

Dialogue like this encapsulates the mood and aura of Past Lives, another Oscar hopeful that scored nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.

The film was released back in June of 2023 but first debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.

Only 10 minutes into the movie, it’s clear why it resonates so powerfully once it reaches the end of its 106-minute runtime. It features characters that are fully developed. We can see the trajectories of their lives span over decades from adolescence to adulthood. It shows us the trials and tribulations they face in a world where happiness is questioned and how things might’ve gone if its two leads had chosen the path to each other.

The movie centers around two characters and shows us who they are as children. Their names are Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). They grow up together in Seoul, but are forced to say goodbye when Na’s family moves to Toronto.

When they become adults, Na changes her name to Nora Moon and Hae is finishing up his service in the military. Nora finds out that Hae has been looking for her on Facebook and the two are quickly reunited online and speaking in their native Korean language.

Nora is a writer and attends a retreat where she meets Arthur (John Magaro). The two instantly fall in love. Meanwhile, Hae is dating another woman but quickly breaks up with her.

Hae tells Nora that he’s coming to New York, where she lives, and the two arrange a meeting despite the fact that Nora and Arthur are now married. All of their exchanges are spoken in Korean, but the dialogue is articulated so convincingly that we wonder if the actors are improvising rather than sticking to any kind of script.

Past Lives was written and directed by Celine Song, making her film debut. She makes these characters look and sound authentic, and while the film’s structure may have moments where it could possibly veer off into predictability, Song is smart enough to pull back on the reins.

She allows these characters to examine what their lives are like now and what could’ve been if they wanted to be together. She writes dialogue that allows these two individuals to go beyond anything that would seem cliched and makes their encounters grounded in words that would seem relatable to anyone who has let that other person go in their own lives.

One of the reasons the movie worked so well with me was because I was able to find a personal identification with the Sung character as someone who believes that in order to be with someone, that person needs to be doing more and better with themselves before they can prove to be a wonderful partner in a committed relationship.

Past Lives is a textbook example of how relationships that need to find closure are placed under the microscope. It’s not afraid to penetrate into how people in relationships are always playing out the “What If” scenarios in their heads, ultimately arriving at a conclusion that gives us a sense of solace.

Grade: A-

(Rated PG-13 for some strong language.)

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