Past Lives Is a Near Perfect Film About Love, Longing, and the Path Not Taken

Past Lives is one of the best films of the year in a year filled with truly incredible films. A cinéma vérité of intertwined lives and a heartbreaking display of love and devotion
IMAGE A24/TBA Studios

Celine Song knows the pain of regret. In her directorial debut, Past Lives, Song captures the ache of longing through a poignant lens and it’s beautiful, perfect cinema. She introduces the deeply Korean concept of inyeon (??), which translates roughly to kismet or fate. But inyeon is something more than merely fate, it’s about the connection between people, how the universe orchestrates circumstance to put us in each other’s paths, whether it’s sitting beside one another on a train or sharing an elevator. Inyeon is the idea that somehow, across all of time and space, we are where we are and we are with whom we are with because fate demands it. And fate is sometimes a bitch.

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Na Young and Hae Sung are classmates and close friends in Seoul whose blossoming romance is nipped in the bud when the former’s parents, a couple of successful artists, emigrate to Canada. Twelve years later, the two find each other on Facebook and rekindle their relationship through Skype calls. They share long conversations that build up a longing that turns into frustration when the reality of finances, distance, and personal ambition takes hold. Na Young (Greta Lee), now known as Nora, decides to put their correspondence on hold to focus on their goals and the two lose touch again.

Photo by A24/TBA Studios.

Another twelve years pass and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who has spent much of the past decade as an engineer in China, finally makes his way stateside to see his old friend. Nora is now married to Arthur (John Magaro), a white American and fellow writer whom she met during her residency the same year she decided to stop talking to Hae Sung. The pair reconnect, awkwardly at first, but eventually settle into a comfortability that is excruciatingly uncomfortable for Arthur, who has joined them on their night out.

Past Lives is all too real; a cinéma vérité of intertwined lives and a heartbreaking display of love and devotion.

Song draws so much from her life that you wonder how much of her pain, or even if Hae Sung, is real. Nora is direct analog for Song, who emigrated to Canada from South Korea at age 12 with her artist parents. Also like Nora, Song is a writer living in New York with her playwright, novelist husband who, like Arthur, happens to be white. The racial divide is a key point that Arthur makes painfully obvious, telling Nora as they lie in bed how, in the story of their lives, he is the villain, the white man getting in the way of true love between Korean childhood sweethearts.

Photo by A24/TBA Studios.
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But Arthur isn’t the bad guy. That would’ve been too convenient. Past Lives isn’t a romcom with paint-by-numbers villains and a predictable plot. Rather, it’s a reflection of a lived experience that might be more familiar to some than to others but relatable just the same. We all have our regrets, even if we choose not to dwell on them. In Nora’s case, her regret is a walking, talking 5’10” paragon of masculinity who keeps finding his way into her life.

Longing and loving hurts; sometimes, it’s also the same thing. Song manages to convey pain and uncertainty through deftly composed frames and precise, yet natural dialogue. Past Lives is all too real; a cinéma vérité of intertwined lives and a heartbreaking display of love and devotion. There are no bad guys here, but there are no winners, either. Only choices made and paths taken. Inyeon.

Before Nora and her family migrate, Hae Sung asks her why they have to leave. She responds, “because Koreans don’t win Nobel prizes,” a pragmatic response laced with ambition. A dozen years later, Hae Sung asks if she’s still working towards the Nobel and Nora tells him that she’s more interested in the Pulitzer. In the present day, Nora is a playwright just trying to get by with her husband, who has just come out with a novel. Dreams of Nobel Prizes and Pulitzers have taken a backseat to surviving the hustle and bustle of New York City. Song reminds us of the sobering effect adulthood has on dreams and ambitions, and sometimes, love.


Past Lives is one of the best films of the year in a year filled with truly incredible films.

Photo by A24/TBA Studios.

Life doesn’t always turn out the way we want to or planned, and sometimes we’re given a glimpse of what could have been. In one tender scene, Arthur reveals to Nora how she talks in her sleep. He tells her that her somniloquies are in Korean, and the reason he’d been studying the language was because he felt that whenever she dreamed, it was to a place he couldn’t follow. Past Lives is a distillation of love and longing, a realization that even if we are where we are supposed to be and with whomever we’re supposed to be with, nothing in life is ever certain.

Greta Lee delivers an astounding performance that borders on the sublime. There is a single moment, the culmination of over two decades worth of missed opportunities and second chances, towards the end of the film where Nora finally gives in to the weight of fate’s cruelty. It’s arguably one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever, and it’s absolute perfection.

Past Lives is one of the best films of the year in a year filled with truly incredible films. It deserves to be seen in a theater, a beautiful, painful exploration of inyeon, of how lives intertwine and love so powerful it transcends lifetimes. Celine Song knows the pain of regret, yes, but she also understands love. Love that waits, that knows its place, and most importantly, a love that stands by, ready to catch you in a comforting embrace when you shatter.

Past Lives is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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Hugo Zacarias Yonzon IV
Zach Yonzon is a cake artist and co-owner of Bunny Baker
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