The poster of "Past Lives" quotes two critics' opinions: one states that the movie "crosses continents and time," while the second declares that it is "without a doubt the best movie of the year." The first is not far from reality; the movie indeed spans across continents and unfolds over a period of 24 years. The second is exaggerated: "Past Lives" is a very refreshing movie in the theatrical landscape of 2023, but it's not the best movie of the year nor does it merit prestigious awards.
The movie follows the enduring connection between Nora and Ha-Song, childhood friends who are forced to part ways when Nora immigrates to Canada with her family. The silent romance that flickered between the children is abruptly severed, and many years pass before the two reconnect. Now, Nora is an American playwright at the beginning of her career, residing in New York, while Ha-Song is a bashful Korean student.
They meet up again through Skype (remember?), and the mutual excitement quickly rekindles. However, the price exacted by the distance between them and the time that has passed plant their signs and erect barriers that hinder the blossoming of their romance. Until the two meet again, their lives will diverge several more times, and new relationships will sprout.
"Past Lives" is the debut film of creator Celine Song, and in many ways, it is based on her own life story and experiences as a Korean-American. Song is unapologetic in discussing her American partnership or her complex emotions towards her lost Korean identity that has become somewhat foreign to her. The fact that the film is a personal confession makes it an intriguing and inviting project, at a time when it could have seemed somewhat too confined as a purely fictional creation trying to stand on its own.
Either way, Song isn't just seeking to delve into her own biography or the romantic plot, but also into fate and the mysterious and delicate ways in which it is determined and unfolds. The film is accompanied by the expression "In-Yan," a Korean concept referring to the connection that every person has with everyone they encounter in their life journey.
Every person you encounter – whether they pass you by in a hurry or if they are one of your dearest loved ones – has already been connected to you in some way in the reincarnations of your past lives. All of Nora's relationships in the movie are examined in light of this principle: what kinds of connections did she have with Ha-Song in previous incarnations? Is there also a realization of romantic love in this incarnation's In-Yan destiny for them?
The movie's merit lies in the fact that it does not surrender to In-Yan, nor does it succumb to examining the alternative sequences of their relationship in previous or future incarnations. The question of what would have happened had either of them not followed the path that advanced their lives remains unanswered. In this sense, "Past Lives" is a tribute of resistance to films like "Everything Everywhere All at Once" or the equivalent universe-spanning films of DC and Marvel.
Nora lives only once, and all her choices are determined and derived from one another. The alternatives, the "what if's," are always placed at the characters' threshold – but inevitably, only one option must be chosen. This resistance against the prevailing trend in commercial Hollywood certainly earns the movie several points.
The above statement enhances the significance and weight of opportunities and missed chances for the characters in the movie. True to her playwright roots, Song places in the mouths of her characters lengthy dialogues pondering fate; yet, in the movie's stronger moments (and in one scene in particular), it is precisely the barrier of speech and heavy silence that elevates it to its peak, presenting the audience not only with the question "what if," but also with the much pressing query, "what will truly be."
Alongside all this, it must also be admitted that this is a small and not too sophisticated movie that sometimes brings to mind television melodramas (an example that comes to mind from recent years is "Normal People" based on Sally Rooney's book). It also suffers from a fullness that accumulates in its first half, a significant percentage of which is based on Skype dialogues.
The movie theater has not yet found the perfect solution for representing communication on screens, but when the audience is required to spend a long time facing text messages, static pixelated frames of characters conversing (or characters sitting and conversing with pixelated frames), it requires highly creative semantic treatment to turn it into compelling viewing material.
After the Skype phase, the successful chapter of "Past Lives" unfolds, with its strength lying in its simplicity, although at times it also tends to exceed its usual routine.
This simplicity, greatly enhanced by the small yet excellent cast, makes the movie recommended for those seeking a breath of fresh air to escape the heat of August and the commercial blockbusters. At times it might come across as too modest and lacks occasional brilliance, but in the current theatrical landscape, "Past Lives" is indeed a rather unique film. Perhaps therein lies the explanation for the exaggeration hinted at in its poster.