Review: “Past Lives” Is A Story That Comes Only Once Every Generation

Review: “Past Lives” Is A Story That Comes Only Once Every Generation

“Lost In Translation” fans, you’re gonna love this one



Disclaimer: Very minor spoilers ahead.


There’s one very brief scene in Past Lives where Nora Moon (played by Greta Lee) appears to be in a writer’s workshop setting. One comment she receives on her work is praise for this phrase,

“the long journey of rotting.” It’s a very brief aside, one that doesn’t propel the plot so much as it adds texture to Greta’s world, and clues us into her psychology. This is a move that Director Celine Song employs throughout the film with great effect, making these cinematically idiosyncratic gestures that are resonant for how mundane and quiet they are. But what is this long journey of rotting? What is this loss?



Before this scene transpires, the movie begins with a glimpse of Nora’s childhood in South Korea, back when she went by her old name—Na Young—and spent time with her schoolmate and childhood friend, Hae Sung. Without giving too much away, we see the way the tether of fate clearly and gently connects them before Na Young immigrates. We watch Hae Sung say goodbye, and we watch Na Young depart, and we witness a great gulf of distance form, feeling the unwavering march of time change them both.


It is a long journey ahead for them both. And Past Lives is the story of that journey.


Song’s debut feature film is a masterful telling of the ephemeral connections we make, and the imprint that the people we love leave on our lives. The story focuses primarily on Nora and Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo), who disconnect and reconnect in critical junctions of their lives, while processing how destiny and their personal choices led them to where they are now. Critical to the narrative as well is Arthur (played by John Magaro), a character we assume is antagonistic before we learn that he, too, must contend with the significance of these mixed connections.



One expects viewers to compare Past Lives to similar films in that emotional register, from Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. However, Song’s artistic approach examines such narratives through the lens of the diasporic experience, the struggles of being a non-white person in America, and what it means to feel alienated from one’s cultural roots.


For example: Past Lives has a knack for “code-switching”—scenes in which Na Young and Hae Sung speak to each other in straight Korean feel emotionally and psychologically different from scenes where Nora and Arthur speak to each other in English. Different worlds, different conversations. Impressively, Song’s mastery of pacing allows the film to switch almost seamlessly between these two modes. In this way, Song manages to evade the smarmier emotional registers of its cinematic tradition, while still embracing the feelings of longing that make these films so moving in the first place. 


Praise is due as well to cinematographer Shabier Kirchner who, with simple camera movements and exquisite framing, make mundane scenes, from Skype calls to waiting for an Uber to arrive, feel emotionally momentous.



Past Lives’ resonances are amplified in no small part by the amazing chemistry shared between Lee, Yoo and Magaro, who play their parts with such intention and care. Another thing that makes this film such a soothing yet poignant watch is how their characters are written as mature and communicative. Lesser directors or stories may tend towards characters that miscommunicate for the sake of melodrama. However, the drama of Past Lives draws its power precisely from characters who try to be sensible adults while processing complex emotions. In this way, one could call Past Lives a grown-up coming-of-age film, which is not only a fair claim, but a testament to just how utterly human this movie can be.



Past Lives is the kind of film that comes out once every generation, and we should count ourselves lucky that we get to see this near perfect work of art in our lifetime. It is also the kind of film that sparks rich, deep conversations with friends, and in doing so, helps strengthen the bonds we share with them. And, not for nothing, rot is not just a process of decay, but of nourishment and life-giving. In all these ways, Past Lives is a truly enriching experience.



Words Jam Pascual

Art Alexandra Lara

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