LSF 2023: ‘Past Lives’ Review: Beautiful Romantic Drama About Love and Destiny

Nora left Korea 20 years ago. She left behind a childhood romance with a boy named Hae Sung; a romance rekindled when he contacts her 12 years later. After a brief Skype-based friendship, which she ends abruptly, they fall out of touch for another 8 years. Now married, Nora must confront her past choices and possible futures when Hae Sung comes for a visit to New York.

A simple love triangle narrative is given emotional heft by director Celine Song’s talent for subtle melancholia. Her camera languidly pans across the city landscapes, her subjects almost lost against the gentle bustle of the city. This connects to the central theme of the film which revolves around the Korean concept of In-Yeon; a concept similar to destiny in which our relationships are dictated by interactions we’ve had with the same souls in past lives. To get married, two souls will have had to interact eight thousand times before. The concept gives the romance a sorrowful smallness against the immensity of the world. 

The early Skype sequence masterfully integrates the modern communication method into the tragic love story. What might have been love letters posted across the world, presented visually with voiceovers and characters bent pensively over the paper, is now replaced by a low-resolution digital window through which the pair can view each other. Immediacy over a distance; an impossible intimacy. 

Although Hae Sung has remained in love with his childhood friend, Nora is not so sure. Although representative of a form of masculinity she identifies as quintessentially Korean, she also sees him as a lifeline to her home. A crucial scene sees the would-be lovers tour the Statue of Liberty by ferry. Nora is surprised to hear that she has never taken the journey with her husband and indeed that he has never seen the statue despite living his whole life in the city. The statue -a symbol of the immigrant dream around the world- is something that Arthur recognises but cannot truly understand as his wife and her childhood friend do. 

Although Teo Yoo and John Magaro excel as the quietly sad and gently heartbroken men in her life, the film is entirely Greta Lee’s. Authentically eccentric, believably charming and entirely captivating, she navigates the emotional turmoil of the narrative with poise and restraint. It’s a star making turn.

In one of many moments of disarming candour, Nora’s husband explains to his wife that in a story he would be the obstruction to true love, the obstacle to be overcome in the third act so that the star-crossed lovers can be together. She laughs at the idea but is clearly troubled by his doubt and her own uncertainty. Song uses a storybook narrative to explore real people with affecting insight and subtle innovation. 

Five Stars

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