'Past Lives' Is a Tender Story of Star-Crossed Love

Directed by Celine Song

Starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro

Photo courtesy of Elevation Pictures

BY Rachel HoPublished Jun 8, 2023

There's a romanticism to Past Lives that almost betrays its quiet story. The film revolves around a decades-long relationship between two individuals whose circumstances and timing never quite align, yet their love is clearly strong and true. Not an altogether heartbreaking story, Past Lives presents a thoughtful and realistic love story of two passing ships in the night.

The Korean concept of in-yun is introduced to Arthur (John Magaro) by his wife Nora (Greta Lee) — the idea of a destined connection between two souls over thousands of lifetimes. In one lifetime, these two mates may be passionate lovers and in another, sworn enemies. Regardless, they will come together by universal design. For Nora in this lifetime, her in-yun seemed to be with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), her childhood sweetheart. 

Growing up in South Korea, Nora and Hae Sung were each other's first loves. They went on playdates as kids and walked home from school together, often competing for top marks in class. Hae Sung is left heartbroken when Nora announces that her family is immigrating to Canada. Their final goodbye is curt, both of them too young to express their sadness over this departure. 

In her feature directorial debut, Celine Song gives herself a healthy challenge by placing the film into three separate timelines. Following Nora's family move to Toronto, Past Lives pushes ahead 12 years to when the budding writer is living in New York City, and through the magic of Facebook and Skype, Hae Sung and Nora are able to reconnect. While the two never physically meet during this time, they develop a meaningful bond, but when Nora feels constrained by their geography, she calls off their regular video chats. 

Moving ahead another 12 years, Nora is now married to Arthur, a fellow writer she met at a writing residency. When Hae Sung is eventually able to travel from Seoul to NYC, the two childhood friends are finally able to reunite in person. During this trip, Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur all contend with and reconcile their individual in-yun. Arthur, seeing Hae Sung and Nora interact, contemplates the cultural gulf between him and his wife that will always exist. As for Nora and Hae Sung, they embrace their natural chemistry, raising conflicting thoughts and emotions for both. 

A film like Past Lives doesn't work without gentle yet stirring performances. Lee is commanding in the lead role, showing Nora's growth through subtle and organic moments, culminating in the climax of the film, which she lands with aplomb. Magaro's Arthur is deceptive. When first presented, he appears to be the white saviour of love getting in the way of our star-crossed protagonists. But thanks to compelling writing from Song and a heartfelt performance from Magaro, Arthur becomes a sympathetic and moving character. 

The performance I was most taken by, though, was Yoo's. In an incredibly restrained turn, Yoo grants Hae Sung a generosity and patience that brings the young man to life in a way that feels tangible yet dreamlike. There are no outbursts of anger or anguish, but Hae Sung's longing and frustration are deeply felt thanks to Yoo's complexity and malleability as an actor. 

Bringing the entire film together is an aesthetic that is often attempted in indie films but rarely executed well — I'm talking about that blurry, romantic haze in the background that strives to illicit a fantastical state to a grounded relationship. While films like Before We Go and Endings, Beginnings thrust this style onto its audience, cinematographer Shabier Kirchner tenderly leads us to it. The muted nature of Past Lives creates a stillness across the movie that highlights its essence. 

There's a shot at the end of the film of two door frames; one fits its door perfectly, the other leaving a slight gap at the top — a poignant metaphor to centre the film's themes and narrative.

It's in this deceiving simplicity where the beauty of Past Lives is found. From the filmmaking to the performances to the writing, everything about this movie points towards a matter-of-fact attitude towards a complex situation. And in doing so, Song aptly captures in-yun: fate is undeniable.
(Elevation Pictures)

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