Past Lives Is 2023’s First Great Movie
Celine Song’s romantic drama is one of the best debuts Sundance has seen in years.
In the opening shot of Celine Song’s Past Lives, one of the most moving and fully formed debut films the Sundance Film Festival has seen in years, we watch from the far side of a bar as three people, a woman and the men on either side of her, engage one another in conversation. Instead of their voices, we hear the chatter of two unseen onlookers speculating on what exactly the deal is with these three. Are the Asian guy and the Asian woman husband and wife? Brother and sister? And what about the white guy sitting to her left, staring into space as she talks? Could he be her husband, her turned-away posture a sign of their intimacy and trust—or perhaps of a growing coldness between them? Maybe it’s not even that complicated: They’re tourists, and he’s their guide. Who are they to one another, and how did they end up here?
I’ve played this game, and you probably have too, trying to suss out whether those people at the next table are on a date, and if so, how well it’s going: whether that older person and that much younger one are parent and child or actually (ick) a couple. It’s a way of testing what you can tell at a distance, how much of the relationships between us are encoded in the ways our bodies interact, but it’s also a means of measuring how close you are to the person you’re speculating with. Do you understand the world the same way? If you’re together, are you meant to be? And what would other people see if they looked at you?
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Past Lives spans 24 years in the lives of Nora (a fantastic Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), the Korean woman and man in that opening scene, jumping forward in 12-year increments. At first, they are children in South Korea, with the kind of attachment to each other it’s too early to identify as love but which might have blossomed into something if Nora’s family weren’t on the verge of emigrating to Canada. 12 years later, she’s a fledgling playwright in New York, and he’s just coming out of his mandatory military service, making plans to study as an engineer. Twelve more and they’re the people in the opening scene. Status: It’s complicated.
The movie’s heart is the middle section, in which Nora and Hae Sung reconnect after years apart and discover, to differing degrees of surprise, that their childhood crush has only been intensified by their years apart. Her Korean is rusty—she speaks the language only with her mom these days—and their Skype connection flickers in and out, but there’s something between them, a possibility stretched across 12 years and 6,000 miles. The way Song shoots their virtual conversations takes in not just their faces framed by laptop screens but the air around them, a blank space waiting to be filled with the decisions they put off making as long as they can. But every decision they make is haunted by its opposite, a cloud of what-ifs that grows larger the longer they live.
Song, who emigrated from Korea herself, organizes Past Lives around the concept of inyeon, a tricky-to-translate term that the movie defines as a form of destiny that governs how interpersonal relationships evolve through multiple layers of reincarnation. Brushing someone’s sleeve in the street in one existence might predestine you to be married to them several existences hence, and no matter how much it might feel to you like an ending point, even the life you’re living now is just one in a long chain. In Endlings, the last of her plays to be staged before the pandemic, Song includes a character transparently based on herself, a Korean playwright wrestling with how much to give in to theater institutions’ pressure to create “authentic” work that centers her race and culture, and Past Lives does the same in a less polemical and foregrounded way. (When 36-year-old Nora is auditioning actors for her latest play, the text they’re reading is from Endlings.) Twenty-four-year-old Nora introduces the concept of inyeon to Arthur (John Magaro) at a writers’ retreat as if she’s sharing a profound belief, then later tells him it’s just something Korean people bring up when they want to seduce someone. There’s something ever so slightly cagey about the way the movie brings up this quasi-mystical idea, pokes fun at it, and then reengages with it. But it’s most powerful as a vessel for the movie’s meditations on regret and loss, and especially what it feels like to lose something you never really had.
For Nora, that sense of loss is intimately connected with her childhood emigration. Talking to Hae Sung, she tells a friend, “makes me feel so not Korean, but also more Korean somehow.” Past lives aren’t just a matter of metaphysics and destiny, but the very real people and places we leave behind. Nora loves her New York life ferociously—even at 12, she reasons that Korea is too small for her ambitions—and doesn’t seem to have much desire to go back, even for a visit. But she still feels a pull, even as she presses relentlessly forward. Being content in your choices doesn’t mean never reconsidering them. In fact, it might be the only way to be sure.
Sundance produces any number of sensations every year, many of which turn out to be busts when they reach audiences that aren’t lightheaded from the mountain air. (I remember the year people were climbing over one another to get into Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and the endless standing ovations for The Birth of a Nation.) But Past Lives isn’t a creation of Sundance hype, which its distributor, A24, has smartly managed by keeping it out of the festival’s online incarnation and sending it on to compete at Berlin next month—not the usual route for an indie darling. January isn’t usually the time to start making Top 10 lists, but I can already confidently put Past Lives on mine.