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‘Past Lives’ is a Heartbreakingly Romantic Triumph (REVIEW)

If I could dedicate a song to Past Lives, it would be “Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar because I am devastated. Fueled by possibilities, pining, and yearning, Past Lives is one of the best films to come out in recent years. Nothing has captured the multifaceted nature of love so perfectly since 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Celine Song, a Columbia grad best known for her work as a brilliant playwright, dazzles the screen with her feature-length debut about possible soulmates caught up in cosmic complications. We follow Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) throughout three different points of their lives. First, they are childhood friends who slowly fall for the innocent charms of puppy love. Their paths diverge, figuratively and literally, when Nora’s family immigrates to Canada, and Hae Sung stays behind. 

Twelve years pass, and Nora is now a playwriting student in New York City. With a stroke of luck (and the help of Facebook), Hae Sung and Nora reconnect. Soon they’re swept up in possibilities and fantasies of what would happen if they could see each other again. What would happen if this were to turn into something more? But the problem is that they have new lives now. There are new responsibilities, and everything becomes cumbersome and overwhelming. Despite this, they remain with the promise of someday, and we stand fully invested.

Over the course of twelve more years, they finally see each other again when Hae Sung travels to New York to see Nora. However…Nora finds herself married to Arthur (John Magaro).

Past Lives pulses with longing as it explores the concept of “In Yun,” a Korean belief that fate stems from two people’s connection in a previous life. Song shared during an interview at Sundance that the inspiration for the film ultimately came from personal experience. 

While the film isn’t autobiographical, many bits and pieces of Song are sprinkled throughout. She shared that once, she was at a bar with an old flame and her current partner. She spoke to them in different languages and communicated with them through different cultural perceptions. This moment stayed with her. The disjointed nature of it. 

The film takes this further and turns itself into a moral dilemma. It’s the epitome of desire for the unattainable. It pierces at the very core of ourselves because it understands what it means to be unsure. Yet it demonstrates certainty within the confusion. The final scene is so heartbreaking in its voracious honesty. It is all the best parts of In the Mood for Love, Before Sunrise, The Worst Person in the World, and even a bit of Fleabag mixed into one harmonious romantic drama. 

Past Lives made me realize my mortal responsibility to allow myself to accept love into my life. Do not allow yourself to be robbed of the privilege of being loved. It’s heartbreaking in its narrative that expands years following two souls wandering the earth. That being said…you’re left hopeful. Yes, you’re gasping, most likely through tears, but there’s a new-found lightness inside you. 

At heart, it’s a film about grieving what could have been. It’s simple in its setup, allowing for an intimate look at the lives of Nora and Hae Sung. It’s also harmoniously uncomplicated in its production. Forming part of A24‘s upcoming slate, it seems the indie heartthrob of the film community has found a new diamond in the rough. It never wavers in its charm and personality, embracing customs and culture. “In Yun” could be a simple belief, but it’s what we must hold onto if we want to believe that maybe in another life, these two wandering souls will find their way back to each other.

Rating: 10/10

Past Lives had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival on January 21, 2023. It will form part of the 73rd edition of the Berlin Film Festival. The film has yet to receive a release date from A24.

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