A24’s latest film, Past Lives, comes from a long line of compelling releases from the studio, and it could potentially see A24 compete for major honours yet again next year
Story: Na Young and Hae Sung are inseparable childhood friends at middle school in South Korea. When Na Young and her family migrate to Canada, the two friends drift apart and do not contact one another for 12 years. The film chronicles their lives as they drift apart again and reconnect several years later – igniting questions about destiny and lost love within themselves.
Review: A love triangle about a woman being with someone who she is not ‘destined’ to be with, while her ‘true love’ attempts to win her back, is almost a cliche in Hollywood romantic dramas and romcoms. Past Lives explores this familiar trope but through a more polished lens without the melodrama. The narrative leans on realism and explores themes of choice, destiny, and migration with nuance and subtlety. Writer and director, Celine Song, on her feature film directorial debut, has discarded unrealistic expectations of love and has explored how people perceive love in modern relationships.
The Morning Show star Greta Lee plays the role of Na Young/Nora, who moved to America in the hopes of becoming an established writer. It is her ambition that compels her to stop speaking with Hae Sung after reconnecting with him over the Internet – 12 years after leaving Korea. The plot then skips to another 12 years in the future as Nora is married to a White American, while Hae Sung’s relationship with his girlfriend comes to an end. The film examines how their lives have become almost unrecognisable, because of the various choices they made when they were younger, or the choices that were made for them.
The story toys with the idea of ‘what ifs’ throughout its runtime, and it reaches its melting point when Nora and Hae Sung finally meet face-to-face in person – 24 years after Hae Sung bid her farewell. The tension and the awkwardness in these scenes are almost palpable. Unlike most stories about love triangles, Nora and Hae Sung are never romantically involved with one another. It makes their interaction heartbreaking as the narrative implies from the opening of its third act that there is not going to be a ‘happily ever after' for Nora and Hae Sung, nor is there a tragic love story of lost love. It simply highlights that real life and glamorous tales of romance in popular fiction rarely share any similarities. The film’s core message is that if a person lets go of something, they also stand to gain something new. This sentiment is directly referenced by Nora’s mother to Hae Sung’s mother in the film’s opening scenes when Nora’s mother explains why her family is leaving behind their life in Korea and migrating to Canada.
Celine Song relies on scenes with awkward silences to capture some of the emotions in the film. And these scenes are elevated by the incredible performances of Greta Lee and Teo Yoo. The minor shifts in facial expressions and body language add more to the narrative than spoken dialogue. John Magaro, who plays Nora’s husband, Arthur, is also outstanding as a conflicted husband who is empathic about his wife’s predicament. Song also leans on allegories and Korean folklore to showcase how the paths the protagonists have undertaken have taken them through different experiences in life, but they ultimately bring them back, not for a rom-com-style happy ending, but for closure. The final scenes at a bar where all three are together in conversation are slow and methodical. But the screenplay and performances are executed to near perfection, and it is surprisingly 'edge-of-your-seat cinema'.
The film’s greatest strength lies in its ability to depict relatable characters and situations – from Nora learning how to type in Korean to communicate with Hae Sung, to Hae Sung’s awkwardness as a tourist in New York. The final scene of the film is a cinematic masterpiece. The director has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on global cinema with her very first attempt, and she has confessed that she has taken inspiration from her own experiences for the film’s story. It is also interesting to note that her real-life husband, Justin Kuritzkes, is the screenwriter for Luca Guadagnino's upcoming sports drama Challengers, starring Zendaya, which also revolves around a love triangle.
Verdict: Past Lives is one of the finest films of 2023. It offers a nuanced and poignant tale about choices and lost love, which is further elevated by masterful editing, an engaging screenplay, and stunning performances by its lead stars. It wouldn't be surprising if Celine Song’s romantic drama locks horns with some of the heavyweights like Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon at next year’s awards season.