Past Lives

Director: Celine Song
Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro
Distributor: StudioCanal
Runtime: 105 mins. Reviewed in Aug 2023
Reviewer: Fr Peter Malone msc
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Coarse language

Two Korean childhood friends meet in New York 24 years later.

It is said that writers should tell their own story. Playwright and director, Celine Song, draws on her own experience of her early years in Korea, her family’s migration to Canada, her career as a writer and marriage. But she enhances it with imagination, exploration of emotions, moments of communication, moments of silence.

There are several layers of meaning in the title, Past Lives. To most it is remembering the past and connections. However, there is an explanation of In-yun, the Korean term for fate that connects people. It is a Buddhist-influenced way of thinking of reincarnation, connections and past lives, bonding in the present and future connections.

The narrative takes place in three-time eras – opening in the present, going back 24 years, advancing 12 more years, and coming back to the present. The opening is tantalising. There are three adults at a bar, and a voice urging the audience to look at them and to wonder what the connection may be, the possible relationships. The central character, Nora (Lee) looks directly at camera. What are we thinking? What are we wondering? Who are these three?

The first part of the film takes place in Korea where we are introduced to two 12-year-olds. There is young Nora who is always getting top marks, but this time crying in distress because she has been beaten by a young Hae Sung. But, we see them as friends, playing together, their mothers having conversations – where will this lead? The immediate and sad answer is that her family is migrating to Canada. This moves the young boy deeply. For her it is just part of life as she wishes him goodbye.

Twelve years later, the young Korean girl has become Nora, a successful playwright. She has very much settled into life in Canada. She attends a writing camp where she meets and bonds with writer, Arthur (Magaro). Meanwhile, Hae Sung (Yoo) does his military service, rather unhappily, has an unsatisfying job, and though has a girlfriend, starts to look online for his young friend. They connect and have an online conversation, but their reactions to the conversation are different. He devotedly remembers her and regrets her absence while she simply remembers a friend.

Then 12 years later again. Nora and Arthur are successful. He has had a book launch signing, she writes plays and they live in an apartment in New York City. Hae Sung decides to visit New York.

Celine handles this section of the film with great delicacy. The audience has got to know Nora well and we wonder how this visit will affect her. While the audience does know Arthur, we wonder how this visit will affect him and his love, his marriage. And what of Hae Sung?

In one sense, there is a simplicity in the screenplay, the visit to New York, meeting, discoveries after 24 years, a tourist trip on the Hudson, a pasta meal at the bar. But, there is depth and complexity in the conversation at the bar, key to the whole film and the relationships of Nora and the two men. The conversation is in English, Korean, and more and more Nora talking with Hae Sung, with Arthur somewhat on the outer. The conversation beautifully opens Hae Sung’s devotion, Nora’s memories, her friendship and affection, her love for her American life, her love for her husband. And, while this conversation is dramatically telling – and she explains the conversation to Arthur, it is the final scene which so aptly and movingly bring this story to a conclusion.

Great emotional exuberance – but profound emotional depth.

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