Past Lives, a directorial debut for Celine Song, has garnered high praise from critics and audiences alike and already is featuring prominently in awards conversations. The premise is simple, Nora (Greta Lee) is happily married to her somewhat unremarkable husband Arthur (John Magaro), when her tranquil existence is disrupted by her close childhood friend Jung Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) travelling to America. Despite immigrating from Korea two decades ago, Nora still doubts her sense of belonging to her new home, leading to her newly resurfaced memories prompting a re-evaluation of her life.
The narrative unfurls over two time periods, encapsulating both the new life that Nora has acquired for herself, and her formative years as a child in Korea and as a teenager trying to navigate and assimilate in America. Song juxtaposes these two timeframes to highlight both the similarities and differences between the past and the present day. Song seems to be fascinated by not only how people around us change, but how we ourselves evolve over time. And not just subtle changes, but rather, how you could argue we become completely profoundly different people. This is shown not only through Nora’s name literally changing from Na-young when she moves to America but also how her entire personality changes. She herself says ‘He’s so Korean. I feel so not Korean when I’m with him.’ It is only when she is confronted by her old life that she realises just how different she has become.
Past Lives too explores whether love is based on fate, evaluating whether relationships are built on pre-determined factors, or simply a collection of lucky coincidences
One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is the parallels with Michael Gondry’s acclaimed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The Academy Award winner for Best Original Screenplay found its beauty in the idea that some of us are inherently meant for each other; even when Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet’s characters have their relationship physically removed from their minds, they still find a way back together. Past Lives too explores whether love is based on fate, evaluating whether relationships are built on pre-determined factors, or simply a collection of lucky coincidences. Nora and Arthur are only together because of a chance encounter at a writer’s retreat. When Nora brings up the idea that for people to fall in love, they need to have known each other in eight thousand layers of past lives, it’s easy to see why Arthur may have felt threatened by Hae Sung’s return into Nora’s life. To Arthur, Hae Sung and Nora share a deep personal connection that he fears he will never share with her. At one point, as he lies next to Nora in bed, he tells her ‘You dream in a language I cannot understand’. His apprehension is not that Hae Sung will take his wife, but almost as if his arrival is making him evaluate his own life as much as it is making Nora reflect on hers. Arthur’s desire to support Nora’s endeavours endears him as a sympathetic character, but still, as the audience you can’t help but overlook the deeply profound bond between Nora and Hae Sung.
This is where Past Lives is at its finest. Song’s meticulous approach to crafting this film allows nuance to enrich the narrative. Past Lives is about not only the people that we become but also the people we leave behind. Song highlights that although Nora did leave Hae Sung behind, she also left that version of herself. To Hae Sung, the Nora he knew might as well be dead.
Her understated performance fits the themes of the film like a glove; Past Lives is not interested in extravagance
Although all three leads give excellent, nuanced performances, Greta Lee is evidently the stand-out. She may not have the emotional outbursts and high intensity perfectly suited for an Oscar reel, but the calmness and skill of her performance deserves to put her in the running come awards season. Her understated performance fits the themes of the film like a glove; Past Lives is not interested in extravagance. The cinematography by Shabier Kirchner is simple but effective and the score from duo Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen is subtle and judicially used. Both of these complement the story perfectly, helping to amplify the emotions of a scene but to also ground the film firmly in realism. Much of the story is drawn from Celine Song’s own personal experiences, which is reflected in the realistic approach of the film.
As all great films do, Past Lives will have you not only thinking about what its characters experienced over the course of the film but also how these events may have been similarly reflected in your own life. Its universal themes of love, change and relationships will stick with you long after the credits have ended. If this is Celine Song’s debut offering, you can only anticipate what she will craft next.