2023 | PG-13 | starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro | written & directed by Celine Strong | 1h 45m | partially in Korean with Subtitles |
Every once in a while a movie comes along that interweaves a combination of different ideas into a story, fuses them together and sparks something original. Past Lives isn’t for everyone, I don’t want to oversell it. This is a leisurely-paced relationship drama set in the most photographed city in the world that rejects romantic movie conventions. Yet it feels shorter than it is. It feels light a tightly-compacted epic that explores huge ideas with a few lines of dialog. It doesn’t have the emotional heft of movies like Brief Encounter or Lost in Translation, but it’s in that rare air.
Nora (Greta Lee) and Jung (Teo Yoo) were childhood sweethearts in Seoul, South Korea. They played on the playground and walked home until Nora’s family immigrated to Canada where she wound up in New York City as a struggling writer. Aside from a brief exchange on Facebook, the two lose touch until 20 years later Jung arrives in the city to see his old friend – now married to a man named Arthur (John Magario) – during a 2-day vacation that has them all wondering about what could have been.
Maybe Past Lives feels like such a refreshing splash of cold water more for what it isn’t than what it is. It’s an anti-rom-com, but not in the sense that it isn’t romantic or pining. It is. However, unlike studio rom-coms, this movie feels adult. It feels real. It feels healthy. It feels like healthy, functional adults doing real things. It’s an antidote to movies with outrageously complicated make-up-to-break-up scenarios that would be resolved if two people just talked to each other. Like last year’s terrific Everything Everywhere All At Once, it’s about the road not taken, be it a much more straight-forward telling of that story.
The meat of the film is Jung’s trip to New York where confident first time director Celine Strong does for Manhattan what Lost in Translation did for Japan. It takes us there as a tourist and breathes new life into the city of Woody Allen and Seinfeld. In a lesser film, the husband would have been a jerk, our two leads would have fallen back in loved and run away together, but Past Lives isn’t that black and white. It lives in the hazy grey areas in a state of suspended uncertainty. Arthur, initially weirded out by the return of Jung, articulates that in this scenario he would be the villain in the movie that stole the love away, yet Past Lives doesn’t play out like that. It straddles a line between love story, unrequited love story and platonic love story – while at the same time interrogating those relationship dynamics as it goes.
On top of that is the culture clash dynamic, with Nora (a name change from Na) westernized and more emotional catching up with Jung’s very formal and reserved Korean man. The movie traces both perspectives, with Nora moving on and comfortable with her life, still caring for Jung and the home he represents and Jung who may be pining away for Nora, but whose perspective is changed by the trip. The performances all around are superb. Everyone has note-perfect chemistry. Lee and Yoo play the uneasy childhood love beautifully, while Lee and Magario have an entirely different chemistry. This is one of those movies that swirled around in my head getting better the more I thought about it. It’s beautiful and simple story a clothesline for ideas that a reality you didn’t expect is better than the fantasy you did. Life is what it is. People both stay the same in ways and evolve into new people in others. A brief touch of passing clothing by two strangers may elicit a spark of a past life together or maybe that life is to come in the future. The film exists in uncertainty and once our characters figure themselves out, it ends, as abruptly as it is perfectly.
Past Lives doesn’t quite fit into a mold of the films kind of like it. It’s not as heartfelt as Lost in Translation, it doesn’t have the yearning of Brief Encounter, the drama of Drive My Car or the extended chemistry of last year’s Together Together. It’s an entirely different animal that offers the viewer an experience in time with two characters and doesn’t spoil it with the usual artificial complications of genre films. One of the best movies of the year.