From Childhood Sweethearts to Missed Connections: “Past Lives” Explores Love’s Lost Threads

Past Lives: A touching story of love & fate, capturing universal truths. A must-see indie film that tugs at the heartstrings.
Past Lives (2023)


Nora and Hae Sung, childhood friends with a deep bond, are torn apart when Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea to Canada. Two decades later, they reunite in New York for a pivotal week where they wrestle with fate, love, and the choices that shape the journey of life.

If you’re the type who finds the nightclub policy of “free entry but you must buy a drink” utterly loathsome, then Past Lives is right up your alley. Despite boasting a compelling soundtrack by Christopher Bear, the drummer, and Daniel Rossen, the singer-songwriter from Grizzly Bear, this isn’t a story about music but rather about love. And here, there’s no obligation to consume—in more ways than one. Premiered at Sundance 2023, then competing at the 73rd Berlinale, lavished with awards and snagging two Oscar nods for Best Picture and Original Screenplay, Past Lives marks the debut of New York playwright Celine Song, under the banner of A24. It’s a golden era for indie cinema in theaters, and this poignant film slides right in effortlessly: it champions emotions, yearnings, persistence, and restraint with a golden touch, a valuable empathy, and an eloquence in what’s left unsaid. It’s a sad truth but worth pointing out: a creation of such caliber is simply unattainable in the Italian indie scene, both in substance and style. Its narrative clarity, dramatic tranquility, and commendable ode to the little things are remarkable, especially in how it turns personal anecdotes into universal truths. When we talk about love, Raymond Carver* would’ve been pleased.

With elegance and without neglect, Song, born in 1988, single-handedly scripts the dance between the resilient Nora Moon (Greta Lee, irresistibly lovable), originally Na Young, and the tender-hearted Hae Sung (Teo Yoo): childhood best friends in South Korea, separated by Nora’s family’s immigration to Canada—her father a director, her mother an artist, and her little sister. Twelve years later, they reconnect on Skype, their affection reignites, and they plan to meet: she’s pursuing a playwriting career in New York, he’s completed military service and engineering school. Despite their longing, they decide—she decides—to part ways again. Life doesn’t wait for them: Nora marries an American Jewish writer, Arthur (John Magaro), and Hae briefly gets engaged. Another 12 years, 24 years since their separation, and the wait ends: he flies to New York for their reunion.

Past Lives (2023) | Transcript

Bring tissues, but don’t expect Past Lives to wave the white flag of surrender: love and reincarnations, choices and fate, face to face, and we’re right there with them. Nora Moon and Hae Sung chase ghosts, feelings, and desires. It’s nothing new, reminiscent of Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater’s cult saga, and its ilk, yet it offers something indispensable to the viewer: the ruthless sweetness of emotion, the abstinence teeming with possibilities, the irony that seasons it all. Seasoned with a dash of female self-determination, it poses a wrist-quivering question, let alone for wedding bands: what sacrifices, especially for love, are made to fulfill oneself? The nod to in-yuan, Korean for providence or fate, the unadorned spleen, the painful surrender, and free will, all captured in Greta Lee’s visual storytelling, point to a cultural exception, a significant and considered triangle for a mini-anthology. Following in the productive and anthropological wake of Minari, the emotional warmth of Drive My Car, and an originality of tone, even care that converts: it’s in theaters, don’t miss Past Lives.

Federico Pontiggia

Il Fatto Quotidiano, February 17, 2024


* Raymond Carver is best known for his short stories that masterfully capture the complexity and simplicity of everyday life. His writing is marked by a minimalist style, characterized by sparse, unadorned prose and a focus on the ordinary lives of middle-class Americans. Carver’s stories often explore themes of love, loss, and the fragile nature of human relationships, imbued with a sense of realism and a deep understanding of human emotions. Among his most celebrated works are the collections What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and Cathedral, which have cemented his reputation as one of the most influential American short story writers of the 20th century. Carver’s ability to convey profound insights through concise and powerful storytelling has left a lasting impact on the genre of short fiction.


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