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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Past Lives (2023)

Fate, destiny, providence. This is inyeon, a Korean philosphy. If strangers walk in the street and their clothes brush one another, it must mean they knew each other in a past life. If two people marry, it means they must have at least 8000 layers of inyeon, sharing 8000 different lives with one another where their encounters have finally led them to be together at this point in time. “Do you really believe that?” Arthur asks Nora as they sit alone, across from one another at an artist’s retreat. A candle’s warm glow urges them closer. Nora finally responds, “That’s just something Koreans say to seduce someone”. And it’s with inyeon, the idea of fate, destiny and how past lives allow for such machinations to take shape, that has Celine Song’s directorial debut (in film at least) seducing us before it breaks our hearts - going over the “the what ifs” and romantic hang-ups we never fully got closure on.



Spanning over two decades across two continents, Past Lives primarily follows the deep connection between Na Young (Or Nora as her Western name, played by Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). Perhaps lovers in many lives prior, but in this one, childhood sweethearts for the briefest moment before their seemingly entwined paths are unraveled and cast adrift - living different lives in different countries far away from what could’ve been. There are two reconnections between them after many years of absence from one another, but Celine Song allows for their second reunion, their second attempt at reconnecting, as the focal point of Past Lives, one which sees her husband Arthur (John Magaro) in the mix as she starts to confront the past with which she never fully confronted; allowing for themes of fate, love and identity to be the driving force in Past Lives.

We’ve all had “the one” that we felt got away. They’re often the hypothetical missing puzzle piece to our fragmented pasts - a snapshot into the lives and outcomes we think we may have had if we made that move, diverting from the path we find ourselves on now. Just how different would our lives be if we did? Or would anything have changed at all? We may be in happy relationships or even happily single right now, but sometimes there will be that “what if” that will suddenly spawn out of nowhere as we find ourselves reconnecting with a certain person or memory that evokes a different version of ourselves years ago. Whether it was who you have always been or someone who has yet to truly discover their wants, desires and needs, sometimes we need to confront the possibilities of what could’ve been, not just for yourself, but for both parties involved so that you may finally gain closure. I’ve had instances of reconnecting with old friendships, some of which have had unspoken feelings, only for them to not fall in line with who I am right now. Sometimes we just grow out of people. We find ourselves constantly evolving (for better and for worse).

Our story begins in South Korea, 12-year-old schoolmates Hae Sung and Na Young/Nora take a keen interest in one another, but before anything can truly flourish past hand-holding in a car ride home, Na Young/Nora and her family emigrate to Canada. This is a sudden shock to Hae Sung in particular as Na Young/Nora doesn’t tell him directly. Instead, he overhears it in class. “Why do you want to leave Korea?” a fellow student asks. Nora replies, “Because Koreans don’t win the Nobel Prize in literature”. She has effectively left Korea behind, adapting Western names and aiming for a future where her Korean identity is a minor, unfavoured detail to a bigger picture she wishes to achieve. Their last moments together are anti-climactic, with Hae Sung simply saying bye to her as they go their separate ways on their walk home from school.

“It’s a great story. Childhood sweethearts reconnect after 24 years who are meant for each other. I’d be the evil white American who stands in the way of destiny”.

Nora and Arthur laugh as he reiterates why this is such a great story. And it is. After many years apart, Celine Song creates a perfect setting for these characters to finally intersect with one another, New York being a particularly important location. Hae Sung appears to be anonymously drifting along in life. He has, what he calls, an “ordinary job with an ordinary salary” because he sees himself as overwhelmingly ordinary. “Why don’t you marry your girlfriend?” Nora asks him about his on and off again girlfriend, to which Hae responds: “She should marry someone more impressive than me”. But if Nora came knocking, would he be good enough for her? Would he cease to be ordinary? At least according to his own views of himself? Perhaps he never felt worthy of her attention, seeing as she wouldn’t make the leap of faith to go and see him in Seoul when they first reconnected online 12 years prior. But then again, he wouldn’t go to New York to see her as well. Hence the initial split up that thwarted their first potential in-person reunion. But is she the missing piece to his puzzle? And is he for her as well?

Despite having effectively won her heart at an artist’s retreat 12 years prior to the film's central reunion, her husband Arthur begins to have some nagging doubts about whether he is good enough for her. Unfinished business can be a potentially dangerous thing for them. Or so he fears. As mentioned before, he can’t help but accept that this is a great story, a fairy-tale that may deserve its fairy-tale ending. But as Hae Sung suggests that perhaps it is Nora and Arthur who have true inyeon between one another, their 8000 layers of past lives experienced with one another have finally led them to be together. Once he was possibly the right person at the wrong time, but now he is effectively the right person at the right time. Yet he still has his reservations.

And then there’s Nora. Throughout the film, she appears to have a firmer grasp on her feelings. Her personality is one of ambition, someone who knows what they want. She is also the hardest to read. Case in point with the film’s opening scene: All three of them are sitting at a bar. We are watching them from across the room as two voices speculate about who they are to one another. Hae Sung and Arthur’s faces reveal a little more about their wants and desires, harboring facial nuances of both melancholy and even hope. But Nora seems to keep those feelings locked away as the hardest one to read. In a pivotal moment, she stares straight down the camera at us, offering no hint at all as to what she is feeling at this moment in time before the film whisks us away to the very beginning.

Throughout the film, Nora is the most decisive of the three. Precise in each step she takes, certain in each goal she places for herself. At 12, she wants a Nobel Prize in literature, 12 years later she shifts her desire to a Pulitzer and then another 12 years later, it’s a Tony Award. “You’re still the same girl. You want to do everything and you want to have everything”, Hae Sung jokes to Nora. She’s the one who decided to place their initial reunion on hold so she could focus on achieving her career, but she is also the one who reached out and found Hae Sung. It is Nora who hints to Arthur to kiss her at the artist’s retreat after explaining inyeon to him (smooth). By definition, fate is an event predetermined by a higher entity. So it’s fitting that Nora is struggling to be as precise and decisive with what to do in this fateful intersection of the past, present and future. Just how will this affect her future? It scares her that she is the master of her own fate, and whatever the others choose to do as a reaction to her decision, they carry a different kind of fate in their hands as well. I’m not saying the men are weak and/or Nora is needlessly cruel or indecisive, but what we see are extremely complex characters just grappling with very real feelings one would feel in this same situation. She may seem like she’s got it all under control with what appears to be a cool head, but we eventually see her breaking down as she comes to terms with what both Hae Sung, Arthur and even the North American continent mean to her as both Na Young and Nora - a crucial collision course of the aforementioned themes of fate and identity that has her potentially severing her past, present and future regardless of her decision.

It’s in fleeting instances, these deeply intimate conversations between her and both men that allow us to understand and connect with not only their insecurities, but their worries as it appears that, at least to them, their futures lie in her hands. It would be so easy for Celine Song to write the male characters as arrogant, mean-spirited, jealous, pathetic etc. But they’re so beautifully layered and authentic in their responses as non-problematic men that it allows for the inevitable heartbreaks and decisions made by Nora to feel even more painful regardless of who you are rooting for. The way in which Song writes both Arthur and Hae Sung is filled with such compassion, love and understanding of their feelings, of their insecurities and doubts that it feels real and completely personal - owing to the spirit of what makes Past Lives so effective.

Identity plays a major part in Past Lives as well, particularly for Nora. Early in the film, Nora appears to be in a rush to leave her Korean life behind. Adopting a new name, learning English on the plane trip and claiming that Koreans never win the Nobel Prize in literature as a reason for wanting to leave. When she first starts talking to Hae Sung again, he calls her by her Korean name Na Young. Nora tells him that no one calls her that, even her own mother. But he can if he wants to. On top of that, she only speaks Korean with her mom and now him, despite having a sister and a father. With this twist of fate, both Nora and Hae Sung find themselves once again in each other's orbit, allowing Nora to reconnect with her past life as her full transition to life in New York, and even the West, is stalled. And so it goes this way. Every time they reconnect, Hae Sung loves to remind her that she’s the same girl he knew back when they were 12. But what he needs to understand, and what she is also trying to figure out, is that the girl he once knew stayed behind when she left. And despite her setting roots firmly in the US, now married to a fellow artist, Arthur feels as though he is un-extraordinary much in the same degree as Hae thinks of himself, comparing himself to that of the villain in a movie.

“You never sleep talk in English. You only dream in Korean”. This is what scares Arthur, what puts doubt into his mind. Although he tries his best to speak some conversational Korean, it’s a whole different world he can’t go into with her, one he can never understand, but Hae Yung can. Both men are unsure and understandably insecure about certain things one may have over the other with Nora. One is married to her, but one is potentially THE one that got away, the childhood sweetheart. And it’s with conversations like this, where in our daily lives of loves found and loves lost, we go over all the “what ifs” in needlessly (and unfair) painstaking detail that is marred with our own hang-ups. It’s so vital that Nora is the only one who appears to be keeping these insecurities at bay. And as mentioned before, she’s the one who puts things into motion, who reassures because no one else can. It’s quite possibly the best example of how to do a “will they won’t they” scenario (at least the best in a long time) - one that doesn’t feel like a cheap grab at trying to instigate drama. Instead, it feels truly authentic in the honesty it portrays. Does she keep both of them in her life? Who does she sacrifice? Is it both? Is it none? It’s worth noting that a lot of the events depicted in Past Lives are adapted from the author’s own life. It’s with that deeply personal touch in conversing with the feelings, themes and events that are potentially mirrored with Celine Song’s own life story that makes Past Lives so captivating in its intimacy.

Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro allow for Song’s words to feel tangible in a world full of hypotheticals. It’s their chemistry that lets the stakes feel so high when they’re trudging through the emotional conflict they find themselves stuck in. Teo Yoo, having been born and raised in Germany by Korean parents, has mentioned in an interview that his own immigrant story, one of alienation and displacement, allowed him to deliver his performance with a specific sense of melancholy that lets Hae Sung become such a compelling character desperate for a finite connection. Fate, as it seems, got in the way of his missing puzzle piece. This sadness cuts deeper whenever we see just how much he longs for the friend he spent so long trying to find, but not fully accepting that people change. After all, no one can ever be the same person they were when they were 12. John Magaro is perfectly suited as Arthur. Thankfully he isn’t the “evil white American” he jokes about being. As mentioned before, Celine Song’s text does such a great job in understanding everyone’s perspectives and Magaro does a wonderful job in portraying Arthur - hiding his deep fears of heartbreak beneath the surface of a husband who needs to support his wife in whatever decision she makes. After all, this is finally a chance at closure not only for Nora, but for both him and Hae Sung as well. Greta Lee is sensational as Nora. It’s the hardest performance to pull off because as mentioned before, she appears to be the most put together whilst everyone else appears to showcase their feelings more openly. Guarding her thoughts and feelings creates more doubt in the minds of the two men as they struggle to get a handle on what her decision will eventually entail. Lee manages to hide her cards effectively, keeping the “will they won’t they” dynamic alive and well, but still lets us in just enough for us to speculate which way she may end up going. It’s a balancing act of concealing and disclosing, something with which she handles so carefully before giving way to the powerful finale.

Past Lives is quite simply one of the best films of the year. It’s a film about identity, love, and most importantly fate. It’s a romantic epic on a small, appropriately intimate scale that omits typical grand gestures of romance - cleverly utilizing tension through a “will they, won’t they” dynamic that never feels like an insufferable cheat code often used to ramp up drama in lesser romances. It’s a delicate, multi-layered character study that showcases the immense talent of its author in Celine Song and her ability to write such complex characters with an undeniable sense of compassion and understanding of what makes them tick. It’s not only one of the best films of the year, but one of the best romance films of the 21st century. Celine Song is a talent to behold.

Where you can watch it: In Theatres (Worldwide), Most VOD Platforms (USA), Bluray & DVD (USA).

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