“Past Lives”

“Past Lives” is a delicate, touching, and honest debut film from writer / director Celine Song. It’s an incredible feat to pull off such an original romantic story, but it’s even more impressive just how perfectly Song captures the very real sense of yearning over the lost love of a possible soulmate. It’s a film that beautifully expresses that nagging “what could have been” feeling that many of us have at least once in our lives, and it’s an absolute stunner in almost every respect.

12-year-old Nora and Hae Sun are classmates at a school in Seoul, but their adorable puppy love romance is abruptly ended when Nora’s family emigrates from Korea to Canada. They don’t keep in touch at all, both growing up in their own parts of the world. A decade later, Nora (Greta Lee) is now a student in New York and is loving her life in America. When she notices that Hae Sun (Teo Yoo) has been searching social media for her, she contacts her old childhood sweetheart out of sheer curiosity.

He is still in Korea, so the two reconnect online through a series of awkward Skype calls that become more frequent, and the pair even plan to meet. But without any time to plan a real trip to see each other in person, Nora decides to stop the relationship once again. Another dozen years pass before the two speak again. This time, they are finally reunited. Hae Sun makes the journey to New York for a few days with the hope of rekindling their deep connection, and Nora is excited but nervous — especially because their lives have changed a lot over the years.

It’s a modern love story about destiny, time, fate, choices, and the freedom to forge your own journey through life. It’s human nature to question if you made all the right decisions along the way, and even more so to sometimes feel wistful with regret. Song’s film conveys that aching and longing for an imagined life versus the one we live, and her writing is very honest and real. Anyone who has ever tried to escape their own reality by embracing the excitement of the unknown, or has been in love with the possibility, or has realized that the grass isn’t greener somewhere else, will relate to this film on the deepest level.

Song’s screenplay is one of the best I’ve ever encountered as far as insightful and perceptive writing goes. Her words are authentic and candid in a way that will feel extremely personal to so many. She captures that soulful feeling of those of us who have been through similar situations, and it hits hard. Song is talented in the way she can write both women and men equally well and with a startling honesty and accuracy.

The story is an expression of a modern romance that’s told throughout the years when the Hae Sun and Nora are 12, 24, and 36 years old. While I didn’t quite buy their soulmate love story, it’s a great way to build on their relationship. Nora’s husband Arthur (John Magaro) has some of the best scenes in the film, including the eventual awkward meeting with his wife’s supposed kindred spirit. The film portrays Arthur’s discomfort and conveys an overwhelming feeling of sadness at the very moment he realizes he’s an outsider in his own relationship. It culminates in a real gut punch of a scene in Arthur and Nora’s bedroom that’s crafted with such a raw honesty that it literally made my heart start to ache.

None of this would be so effective without the stellar cast. All three leads give outstanding performances, and what’s even more amazing is that their characters are equally relatable.

“Past Lives” is clearly a deeply personal film that is beautifully written, acted, and directed. It’s a touching story of the very real melancholy of longing and regret, and it explores how the choices we make shape not only the outcome of our lives, but who we are as human beings.

By: Louisa Moore

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