Past Lives had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival early this year and with A24 stepping on board as producer, the expectations ran high. The end result? An extraordinary debut from writer-director Celine Song, which was lauded for its unique visual style, stellar performances, and compelling narrative. As a Korean American, Song paints a picture of how her life might have been, had she made a completely different decision, met different people, and lived somewhere completely distant.
In the heat of childhood romance, one decision leaves both principal characters, Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Yoo Teo), on different paths of self-exploration, and the fate of their relationship plays out on-screen. Greta Lee and Yoo Teo are perfect and endlessly watchable in their roles. The viewer can strongly empathize with their characters thanks to their outstanding performances, but most notably, the tiny and subtle facial expressions they exchange throughout.
Shabier Kirchner’s (Small Axe) cinematography is stunning, framing gorgeous scenery in an otherwise mundane setting, in New York. The film looks incredible, with Song using a blue-tinted color palette to convey certain emotions. And I’m stunned that this is only her debut.
With a focus on crafting an honest and intimate narrative, Song delves into themes of fate, love, immigration, and relationships, creating a story that is both personal and relatable. Song explores the idea of an “In-Yun,” one I won’t dive into in great detail, but she finds the perfect balance between diving too far and restraining herself just enough for the questions to be widely thought-provoking. She uses language and part of her identity to explore the theme of predestination in very clever and dynamic ways.
In a movie as quaint and quiet as this is, there may be the ringing issue of pacing; however, I felt enthralled in whatever direction Song took us. The director has a deep love for certain romance films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and In the Mood for Love, which is visible in how she pays homage to them rather than blatantly ripping them off.
Much like in Charlotte Wells’ debut film Aftersun (2022) from production company A24, we’re drawn into an entirely realistic setting. Like a fly on the wall, we witness altercations that are authentic and relatable, thanks to the breezy writing and brisk direction. The honest script never asks more than it can handle and always ensures to keep the story grounded in reality. For a movie that is only an hour and forty-six minutes, I was enveloped in every single character and certainly wouldn’t mind if there were to be a PLCU (Past Lives Cinematic Universe), discovering all the fates of our characters. Entirely engaging, I could watch them for another hour (or two).
John Magaro (Carol, The Big Short, First Cow) plays a key role that I wasn’t quite expecting to become as emotional and gut-punching. There is a level of surprising comedic relief that didn’t hurt the film’s tone, rather added a layer atop other emotions. Although I adore the movie’s editing by Keith Fraase, he especially shines in the first act, and without spoilers, cuts seamlessly between two laptops, allowing the conversation to take control, almost to the point where the editing becomes unnoticeable.
Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s score is lush and serene and truly does its job by the third act. When the sorrow trickles in, it pays off significantly by the end. I found myself completely enchanted by these characters’ lives and the emotional baggage that was tucked away inside for so long. For a film that skips decades, the story never feels rushed in any way, and every time jump was intentional.
At the end of the day, Celine Song’s writing and direction are the heart and soul of this film, providing a deeply personal and emotional punch that will leave you wanting for more, in a good way. Greta Lee, Yoo Teo, and John Magaro deliver moving performances. The score is beautiful, and the cinematography is gorgeous, with breathtaking production design by Grace Yun. And it’s a wonder that Celine Song’s debut feature has already set the bar so high. I hope we get another film of this caliber from her in the coming years.
The end credits will leave you emotionally overwhelmed. So, keep those tissues handy. With its compelling narrative, exceptional cast, and thought-provoking themes, it is a film that stays with you long after. As we leave Nora and Hae Sung’s story, we are inspired to reflect on our own connections and the ways in which they have shaped our lives.
Song delves into the intricate tapestry of emotions and relationships that define our existence. It’s one of the finest films of the year. Watch it not only to support good cinema but to experience that raw, human emotion we rarely experience on-screen.