Back when Past Lives debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January—yes, that long ago—it was already being touted as one of the best films of 2023 just weeks into the year. Now that we are at the end of June and the film has (finally!) gotten a nationwide release as of June 23, I am here to tell you that everyone’s January praise was right. It is, without a doubt, the best movie of 2023 so far.
This understated, peaceful, and longing film about a woman caught between a past life, her present life, and the future life she tries to envision comes from A24. This is important to note up top because achieved something similar with their award-winning smash hit Everything Everywhere All At Once in March of last year.
The movie released in New York and LA, built up a truly powerful word-of-mouth campaign, then slowly released into more and more cities across the US over the course of about four weeks. Little did we know, that unofficially “started” the Oscar season nearly an entire year before the awards. Well, Past Lives has officially kicked off the 2024 Oscars season and once again A24 has dictated that the late fall and winter release schedule for big award-contending films might be a thing of the past.
Past Lives review: Introducing the beautiful concept of inyeon
In Past Lives, Nora (Greta Lee), a writer now living in New York City, is caught up in a world of longing love when Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), a childhood friend from South Korea, visits her to see if anything may still exist between them. Being Celine Song’s (a former playwright herself) directorial debut, it’s easy to see how the film benefits from a clear and distinct three-act structure that is broken out by vast amounts of time and distance—something not so easily achieved on the stage.
The idea of time and distance, two essential themes of the movie, make this a film not only about love and the what-could-have-been’s (think Before Trilogy or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which gets a direct callout), but about our own individual place within this thing we call life. Where we, as singular people, exist within this gargantuan galaxy and, conversely, where we exist in relation to everyone around us, specifically those with which we possess a certain level of inyeon (인연).
The beautifully constructed film centers on this idea of inyeon. An idea that if you meet someone, no matter how briefly, it means that you’ve also met in a past life. Or, as Nora explains to her husband when they meet for the first time, “something Koreans say to seduce someone.” While it is a funny moment among many within the film, it begs the core question of how deeply one, or in this case Nora, can believe in inyeon and how that might shape their life. Their destiny.
The bulk of the movie boils down to the relationship that Nora and Hae Sung have and strive for together. Bonded so closely in childhood then torn apart and stretched to rekindle friendship halfway across the world from each other over the course of decades leaves its mark. And it isn’t a small one.
What if Nora had never emigrated from South Korea to Toronto as a child and then continued her journey to New York City as an adult? What if Hae Sung hadn’t waited so long to seek her out? Would they be in love? Would they have started a family? Or are all those perilously pervasive questions just dust in the wind of a past life lived long ago?
I don’t want to go into too much detail surrounding the specifics of the plot or how moments play out for Nora, Hae Sung, or even Nora’s husband Arthur (John Magaro), so I’ll refrain from writing another 2,000 words. Seriously, I could, the movie is that powerful.
What I will say is that this movie is special. It’s more than special, it’s beautifully delicate in the way it traverses the most existential of all love questions—what would my life look like if I made one different decision? — while also packing a damn wallop in what each layer of the film is trying to say.
Greta Lee plays a character that is so insular and reserved that you feel like you are feeling and experiencing everything she is feeling and experiencing. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her name in contention for Best Leading Actress come nine months from now.
John Magaro is nearly more heartbreaking in the film, playing the perfect dejected-yet-ominously-hopeful husband to Nora. His lines are interjected throughout the script like carefully planted candies, each one adding a level of sweetness, along with humor and sadness, to the project as a whole. His ability to convey his trepidatious support of Nora in her journey of reconnecting with Hae Sung is magnificent and allows for the film to be rewatched and re-experienced entirely through his point of view and his own inyuen journey.
There is a shot at the end of the film—again, I won’t spoil anything—that feels magical. The camera work, the sparsely scripted words, and the facial expressions of everyone are enough to make you cry on the spot. Past Lives is a truly wondrous experience, let alone film.
It forces you to bring the ideas that are on the screen out into the real world that you actually live in. Who were you in a past life? Who will you be when this life becomes a past life? I don’t have the answers to that, but whatever they are, I hope this movie follows both you and me to those lives and beyond.
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'Past Lives' Review'Past Lives' Review
- A patient, powerful telling of the what-ifs in life
- Greta Lee elevates inner turmoil to new heights
- You will be a blubbering mess by the end—I promise
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