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Past Lives (2023) Review and Summary of This Mind-Bending Film

Step into the mind-bending world of the “Past Lives” movie (2023) as we provide a comprehensive review and summary of this captivating film.

Great Lee (Nora) and Ted Woo (Have Sung) in 'Past Lives.
Great Lee (Nora) and Ted Woo (Have Sung) in 'Past Lives.' Credit: A24

‘Past Lives,’ directed by Celine Song, follows the journey of Na Young (later Nora) and Hae Sung, who initially form a connection as childhood friends in South Korea but are separated when Na Young’s family moves to Canada. The story then unfolds over a span of twelve years, as they reconnect through Facebook and later meet in New York City.

“Past Lives” delves into the various stages and complexities of relationships, from childhood crushes to adult yearning. The film captures the subtle moments and gestures that can indicate the authenticity and depth of a relationship. Whether it’s prolonged eye contact, continuous conversations, or shared experiences that feel special, each instance adds to the development of their bond.

Celine Song, known for her background in playwriting, demonstrates her storytelling expertise in the film. She skillfully constructs the narrative around Nora and Hae Sung, creating a world that seems to dissolve when they are together, emphasizing the special connection between them. The dialogue in the script is realistic and reveals the characters’ vulnerable emotions, captivating the audience through authentic conversations rather than melodrama.

The cinematography by Shabier Kirchner further enhances the storytelling, using careful close-ups to capture Nora’s expressions and Hae Sung’s reactions. The film juxtaposes different settings, such as the dreamy streets of New York City and the childhood playgrounds of Seoul, creating a contrast that emphasizes the characters’ connection regardless of location. The camera work evokes a sense that nothing else matters when they are together.

Beyond being a love story, “Past Lives” also explores themes of the immigrant experience. Nora’s choice to leave her home country and adapt to a new life in America is echoed throughout the film. It reflects the notion of gaining something new while leaving something behind. Nora’s relationship with her Korean heritage is also explored, as she admits feeling disconnected from her culture and expressing insecurity about her identity when she is with Hae Sung.

The film portrays the shared background of Nora and Hae Sung as a secondary connection that goes beyond their personal interests. While they share a language and a sense of belonging, their feelings and paths diverge, as seen through the motif of encounters in past lives. Their long-delayed reunion brings up questions of what could have been and highlights the nostalgia, love, and remorse associated with missed opportunities.

The performances of Greta Lee as Nora and Teo Yoo as Hae Sung bring authenticity and depth to their characters. Their interactions feel natural, and even their silent gazes communicate a sense of a long-standing connection. Their emotions are restrained yet palpable, creating a bittersweet atmosphere that mourns the love that never fully blossomed and the childhood they left behind.

Overall, “Past Lives” is an effective and beautiful film that combines elements of nostalgia, love, and regret. It draws inspiration from other notable movies but maintains its own distinct voice through Celine Song’s directorial style. The film allows us to appreciate the memories of our past lives while acknowledging the roads not taken and the relationships that were never meant to be.

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