Skip to main content
The Independent Critic

Greta Lee, John Magaro, Teo Yoo
Celine Song
Rated PG-13
105 Mins.
A24 Films

 Movie Review: Past Lives 
Add to favorites

It's not often that a film feels "just right." It's a rare thing that a film feels like it never plays a false note or never speaks a false word. Yet, this is precisely what occurs in writer/director Celine Song's directorial debut feature Past Lives, a Sundance charmer picked up by indie kingpin A24 for a limited nationwide theatrical release starting June 23rd. 

It starts in 2000, a South Korea setting introducing us to Na Young (Seung-ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung-Min Yim). They are 12-year-old classmates, young loves before either one really understands what the word love actually means. Song takes us through their scenes tenderly and respectfully and in such a way that it's inevitable we all reflect upon our own childhood crushes. 

Then, it's over. Na Young's parents decide to immigrate to Canada. Na Young becomes Nora, theoretically the same person yet something beyond her name changes as she transitions into a new life journey. 

12 years later, almost on a whim, the two reconnect on social media. They are young adults acutely aware of their childhood connection that never really resolved itself and their young adult selves that crave something resembling that connection. Nora, played sublimely by Greta Lee, is now in New York, a burgeoning writer, and Hae (Teo Yoo) remains in South Korea living the life he is expected to live. They are, theoretically, the same people.  The spark between them is natural, believable, and palpable yet they are separated by thousands of miles and an awareness that it will take at least a year to get the permits that would allow them to meet in person. 

Burdened by reality, they separate "for now" once again. 

12 years later, Hae Sung has separated from a girlfriend and finally has arranged his long desired trip to New York. Nora is now married to Arthur (John Magaro), a Jewish writer with whom she shares an East Village walkup and a surprisingly ordinary story. 

There are a myriad of ways in which Song could have played into the drama in Past Lives. There are a myriad of ways she could have opted for the usual relational conflicts and heightened dramatics. 

What is surprising, I suppose, is that Past Lives is, for the most part, devoid of these conflicts in favor of genuine human relationships and people trying to figure out their past, present, and future lives. In many ways grounding itself within the concept of In Yun, Past Lives is remarkable as both an intimate journey involving three core characters and as a universal film touching on such themes as immigration, connection, and the lives we so often leave behind. It's a film that grabbed me in its opening moments and never let me go. In fact, I never wanted it to let me go. 

Song's direction here is one of tremendous tenderness and confidence. It's as if she's holding these characters in her hands with love and respect, intimacy and universality. Song's dialogue, whether in English or Korean, feels natural and immersive and often connects so easily that I frequently found myself forgetting I was reading subtitles. I was 100% surrendered to these people and their stories. Conversations linger, words spoken and unspoken lingering in the air. Lensing by Shabier Kirchner invites us inside these lives yet also makes us aware of the worlds in which they live - how they are different and how they are very much the same. Original music by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen has a similar impact. Grace Yun's production design envelopes and awes. 

Song brings forth tremendous performances from her three leads with Greta Lee, in particular, giving one of the year's most charismatic and utterly engaging performances. As the closing credits were rolling, I wanted to watch her over and over again. I found myself imagining her conversations long after the closing credits. 

Teo Yoo impresses as Hae Sung, never completely lost yet also seemingly searching for something almost indescribable. Yoo, as Lee's Nora points out, feels very Korean here yet also is so easily relatable in a way that transcends borders. 

In one of his most satisfying performances, Magaro beautifully portrays Arthur's true connectedness with Nora yet also his acute and even painful awareness that there are parts of her with which he will never be able to fully connect. "You dream in a language I can't understand" may very well be one of my favorite lines from a movie this year. 

I kept waiting for the big conflict. I kept waiting for the histrionics. I kept waiting for the Hollywood-style action or resolution or ending. 

These things never arrived. 

Instead, Celine Song has delivered one of the best films of 2023. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic