Genre: Drama/Romance
Director: Celine Song
Cast: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro Park
Runtime: 1 hr 46 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Official Website: 

Opening Day: 24 August 2023

Synopsis: Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), two deeply connected childhood friends, are wrest apart after Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. Two decades later, they are reunited in New York for one fateful week as they confront notions of destiny, love, and the choices that make a life, in this heartrending modern romance.

Movie Review:

‘Past Lives’ owes its title to the Korean concept of ‘In-Yun’, which refers to the providence that binds people across both past and present lives, such that they are bound to weave in and out of each other’s worlds. That is the fate which Na Young and Hae Sung have to confront over the span of more than two decades, learning ultimately about friendship, love, regret and what it means to move forward with the life that is here and now.

Already destined to be among the best movies of the year, it is the writing-directing debut of Korean-Canadian-American playwright Celine Song, who draws on her own life to make a film that is both beautifully restrained and brimming with feeling. Told in three acts, each separated by 12 years, it begins intriguingly with a shot of two Asians and a white guy seated at a bar, while voices offscreen speculate how they might be related to each other.

Act one begins 24 years earlier in Seoul, with Na Young and Hae Sung (played here by Seung Ah Moon and Seung Min Yim respectively) walking home from school mostly in silence, until Hae Sung chides Na Young for begrudging the one time he has beaten her in Maths at school. Na Young returns home to her parents packing their stuff as they prepare to immigrate to Canada, and when asked if she has settled on an English name, her father suggests she adopt the name Nora. Upon Na Young’s request, her mother arranges for her to have a play date with Hae Sung in the park before they leave for good, and after an afternoon out, Na Young and Hae Sung end up holding each other’s hands in the car on the way back, with her head on his shoulder.

The next act starts with the title card ’12 years pass’, with Na Young in college in New York City and Hae Sung just completed national service back in Korea (now played by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo respectively). While having a random chat with her mother on the phone about her former classmates, Na Young recalls her crush on Hae Sung, and after looking him up on Facebook, realises that he had left a message on the page for her father’s restaurant asking to find her. Before long, Na Young and Hae Sung are not only connected as friends on Facebook, but also chatting frequently with each other on Skype.

Alas, their long-distance relationship comes to an abrupt end when it dawns on Nora that it would not be possible for them to see each other physically until more than a year later and she decides that they should stop talking for a while so she can focus on her writing. Soon after, Nora attends a writers’ retreat in Montauk, where she meets Arthur (John Magaro) whom she will make love to and eventually marry. It is during that retreat however that she first describes ‘In-Yun’, but when asked by Arthur if she believes in it, Na Young dismisses it as just “something Korean people say to seduce someone”.

The third and final act though demonstrates how time (another “12 years pass”) changes perspective. On the guise of a vacation to New York, Hae Sung looks Na Young up, and after spending one day touring the city together, Na Young realises that he had specifically came to see her after breaking up with his girlfriend. It will take another day spent together for Na Young to recognise the feelings she has for Hae Sung, feelings that never quite went away since their childhood times back in Seoul and which are awakened seeing each other for the first time after 24 years.

It is only at this point that we realise the significance of the very first scene of the movie, because it is at the bar that Na Young and Hae Sung will confront how they feel and what it means in the context of their present lives. It is also at that setting that Hae Sung will bring up ‘In Yun’, wondering what they were to each other in their past lives and if things would have been different had Na Young not left all those years ago. Consider this fair warning that it does get achingly bittersweet, and perhaps even the most stone-hearted may find themselves moved to tears.

Indeed, Song’s true accomplishment is in how she taps her own life story to make us reflect on our own – the choices we had made and those that lie before us, the people we have met and the ones we have left behind, the connections whether as friends or lovers that we had forged at some point in our lives that we have lost with or over time, and last but not least the summation of all those could-have-beens and would-have-beens that we must learn to accept. It isn’t just Na Young and Hae Sung’s story per se that is moving, but in fact how real and relatable their story is to a certain chapter of our very own lives that gives it added poignancy.

Besides Song’s treatment of her material, Lee deserves absolute credit for drawing us into her world seamlessly. Best known for her role in the Netflix comedy drama ‘Russian Doll’, Lee stuns in a star-making lead turn with a terrifically subtle and immediate performance. She communicates each and every unsaid emotion within Na Young effortlessly, and cuts to the heart of her character’s self-divided identity as a native Korean growing up in America. Yoo and Magaro carry their respective characters with grace and equanimity too, especially in how both Hae Sung and Arthur manage their own emotions as Na Young deals with her own.

If we seem to be waxing lyrical about ‘Past Lives’, that’s because it has been some time since we were this unexpectedly moved by a film of such intimacy. It is a truly emotional experience all right, a meditation on choice and destiny that will resonate with you long after the credits are over. Indeed, no matter what has happened before, or what we might think could have been, the life before us is what each of us has to come to terms with, deal with, and do so as gracefully as we possibly can.

Movie Rating:

(Subtle, moving and heart-breaking, this meditation on choice and destiny is an emotional rollercoaster that will have you reflecting on what was, what could have been, and the here and now) 

Review by Gabriel Chong


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