‘Past Lives’ Review: Immigrant Tale Explores the Foundations of Love and Fate

Sundance 2023: Playwright Celine Song’s directorial debut asks evocative questions about how we are shaped by places and other people

Past Lives
"Past Lives" (Jon Pack/Sundance Institute)

There’s a unique emotional displacement that happens to people who migrated when they were old enough to have forged memories of life in their homeland but still young enough to be remolded by a new environment. As the years mount, and you become someone else somewhere else, that previous existence, now so distant from your current reality, begins to fade into a corner of your subconscious covered in the cobwebs of nostalgia.

But what of the people left behind, for whom you exist only as a frozen memory of somebody that you used to be? And if such a person, who only knew that now-nonexistent version of you, re-entered your life today, who would you be to each other? Former friends turned strangers? Living proof of who you both once were and of the moments lost to time?

In her first foray into film, South Korean–born playwright Celine Song has given a cinematic body to such a collection of elusive yearnings stemming from the what-ifs that plague our lives. Inspired by her own accounts of separation and reconnection across continents, “Past Lives” is an exquisitely wistful drama that speaks with an honesty so affectingly crisp it will turn your conceptions of love, identity and fate on their head.

“Past Lives” opens with a shot featuring three people at a bar chatting intently. A voice off camera ponders the relationship between the three of them before we travel back 24 years in the past to Seoul and begin unveiling the not so clear-cut answer. There, Na Youn, a 12-year-old girl, and her close male friend Hae Sung are on a final playdate at a gorgeous sculpture garden before she and her family migrate to Canada.

“If you leave something behind, you gain something too,” Na Youn’s mother explains when asked about the family’s plan to migrate. Song shoots the kids’ final goodbye at a literal fork in the road for an image that will linger with us. From there, the writer-director tracks this ill-fated, geographically impaired connection at two separate points in their future.

Twelve years swiftly go by, and adult Na Youn (Greta Lee, “The Morning Show”) — now going by her chosen English name, Nora — has migrated once more, this time to New York City to be a playwright. Suddenly, while on the phone with her mother, she remembers that boy she used to know and discovers that, forcing the hand of chance, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo, “Decision to Leave”) has been searching for her online.

Their virtual reunion begins as a curious trip into bittersweet recollections, but as the Skype conversations grow in intimacy and frequency, Nora feels herself losing focus of what’s in front her. She’s falling for a man who exists for her only on a screen. Lee’s achingly radiant performance maps Nora’s evolution from the driven effervescence of her 20s to the hard-earned emotional perceptiveness that transforms her into a virtuous storyteller and a warm, open-hearted human being married to an ideal partner a decade later.

To ignite such metamorphosis, however, Nora walks through a large, airy and empty house going from room to room, as if she knew exactly what she was looking for. Through an open window, she eventually sees Arthur (John Magaro, “First Cow”) in the distance. Perhaps a higher power placed them both in this writing retreat, or maybe the biology of attraction played in their favor.

On the night they meet, Nora shares the precept of In-Yun. Derived from Buddhism, this belief explains that for two people to cross paths in this plane of existence, 8,000 layers of connections came before through the ages, and thus nothing we go through is arbitrary. It’s in details like this that Song’s drama appears so precise in its wisdom and yet so plentiful in meaning that anyone can tap into its well of delicately sourced emotion.

For those who’ve migrated, the notion of living many lives within our mortal one isn’t entirely hypothetical, but rather a byproduct of the experience. And in that regard “Past Lives” shares philosophical terrain with other recent explorations of similar themes such as “Return to Seoul,” “Mountains May Depart,” “I Carry You With Me,” and “Bardo.”

Another dozen years elapse, and Hae Sung, older and going through the motions of an “ordinary” life, travels to New York for vacation during a storm. Now that he and Nora occupy the same physical space for the first time in decades — quite literally a few lifetimes ago — the long held what-ifs between them turn into what-nows. As if the intention were to have Hae Sung and Nora’s meeting unfold in a heightened reality, NYC has rarely looked as luminous and in the hands of cinematographer Shabier Kirchner (“Small Axe”). A long tracking shot near the end of this longingly romantic yarn stands out among Kirchner’s thoughtful visual contributions.

“He’s Korean-Korean,” Nora tells Arthur of Hae Sung, noting that in his presence she realizes how different — Westernized perhaps — she has become. Yet, he embodies a direct bridge to the Korean child, Na Youn, she once was. That will forever link them.

But neither her childhood crush nor her husband have ever had to transform the way she has, with a new name, language and culture. Hae Sung has always remained in the same country where he was born, and the same goes for Arthur. Lying in bed one night during Hae Sung’s visit, a profoundly troubling realization washes over Arthur: no one can ever truly know you, not every part of you, at least. Nora dreams in Korean, a language he can’t fully comprehend that symbolizes a place buried within her that he cannot access.

Rich, yet never not authentic, Song’s dialogue delivers piercing truths in softspoken verses. That attribute grows in importance when Arthur and Hae Sung meet, each trying to speak the other’s tongue and both knowing who they each are to Nora. Song doesn’t vilify either man’s feelings toward the love triangle of which they have serendipitously taken part. Yoo’s solemn turn communicates the purity of Hae Sung’s feelings, even as Nora’s tender sincerity repeatedly wounds him. Brimming with levity, Magaro’s reactions to the situation, in turn, ring just as genuine, as a man who wonders if he was indeed the one for Nora.

Back at the bat where it all began for a tear-inducing chat, Song tacitly asks: If we love those we love because the forces of the universe brought us together, does that mean that this connection was always written in the sacred pages of the book of destiny? And does that make this bond all the more special or less so if we consider that we had no freewill in actively making it happen? On the other hand, if it’s all just a random sequence of coincidences without discernible reason, does this undermine the significance of this relationship because it could have occurred with just anybody else?

Whatever one chooses to believe, Song seems to express, our lives happen somewhere in between providence and self-determination. Steeped in melancholia, Song’s masterful debut behind the camera holds inside its transporting arms a forward-thinking ode to the unstoppable whirlwind of the decisions we make, the ones made for us, the regrets that haunt us, and how we choose to move on while carrying all of their unavoidable baggage. As soul-crushing as it is life-affirming, by the time “Past Lives” reaches its final destination, neither the characters nor us are the same.

“Past Lives” makes its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.