“Past Lives” Makes Space for Missed Connections and What Ifs

“Past Lives” Makes Space for Missed Connections and What Ifs

A24’s profoundly moving film, “Past Lives,” explores how our choices make up the fabric of our existence



Disclaimer: This film review includes spoilers. 


The enduring question persists: Is there such a thing as the right person at the wrong time? Can you come across a lover and do everything in your capacity to make things work out, yet still feel like the world is against you? What do you do when love seeks closeness and intimacy, but distance takes its space in a relationship? 


Past Lives, from the studio behind Everything Everywhere All at Once and Euphoria, explores the idea of star-crossed lovers Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). They’re childhood friends-turned-sweethearts from Seoul, who are tied by an invisible string and meet after years of separation. Nora immigrates to Canada and, as a young adult, finds herself in New York. For years, Hae Sung has been in search of this kindred soul and finally gets in touch with Nora, thanks to an unexpected Facebook message.



A stark time difference doesn’t hinder the two from entering a beautifully full yet tumultuous long-distance relationship. Months pass and Nora feels unease, eventually offering an ultimatum: come to New York or end their correspondence. Due to conflicting schedules and life goals, the two separate and the computer screen, which carried the two and their fondness for each other through time, is blank. 


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Years pass and Nora finds herself in the arms of a writer like herself, Arthur (John Magaro), and gets enveloped in pure domestic bliss. She dutifully moves on from her first love, until Hae Sung, after splitting with his own partner, decides to visit Nora in New York. After years without contact, the two form an inseparable bond that's made possible by their shared history. 



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“What if you never left Seoul, would I still have looked for you? Would we have dated? Broken up? Gotten married? Would we have kids together? I just wanted to see you one more time,” Hae Sung asks Nora during their last night together. More than a profoundly moving and realistic tale of love, the debut film of director Celine Song, Past Lives, explores how our choices make up the fabric of our existence. How do we embrace our decisions fiercely while making space for our what ifs and what could have beens? After all, there the tendency to look back is quite human. Had Nora stayed in Seoul, would they have ended up together but potentially grow to resent each other because of Nora’s deep ambition? Had Hae Sung stayed in New York, would Nora have left Arthur and embraced destiny with her first love? 



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Past Lives introduces the Korean concept of In-Yun, which essentially translates to the idea that in your other lifetimes—your past lives—you encountered and will encounter this “special someone.” You have and will meet them again regardless of circumstances. You can grieve missed connections and feel tortured by the hand of destiny, but in the end, you will forever be tethered to them. Isn’t that a relief?


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“Past Lives” starts screening in over 140 cinemas nationwide, including Cinema ‘76 Film Society, on August 30. Bring some tissues.



Art Matthew Ian Fetalver

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