Life & Culture

Past Lives review: Reunited with her soulmate from Seoul

This touching semi-autobiographical drama is simply sublime from start to finish


Past Lives
Dir: Celine Song
Cert: 12A | ★★★★★

In this touching semi-autobiographical drama, South Korean Canadian filmmaker Celine Song tells the story of  the enduring connection between two childhood friends from Seoul. Past Lives premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January and later won the coveted Golden Bear Prize at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. The film also featured in the The Jerusalem Film Festival official programme, where it won Best International Feature.

Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), two very bright and deeply connected childhood friends, are suddenly torn apart after Na Young’s family decides to emigrate to Canada. “You can’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature if you stay in Korea” she tells Hae, when asked why she wants to leave. In Canada, the young woman changes her name to Nora and later moves to New York, where she sets he sights on a Pulitzer Prize instead.

Happily married to a talented and deeply likeable Jewish writer called Arthur — acclaimed Jewish actor John Magaro delivering the single best performance of the year here — Nora has to contemplate notions of destiny and heartbreak when Hae travels from Seoul to pay her a visit. As the once best friends take in the sites of the city  — something she has never done with Arthur — Nora begins to wonder about her true feelings for Hae.

Song takes us through Nora and Hae’s relationship over a period of two decades in flashback moments of intimacy and soul-bearing. Song’s ability to depict the inner turmoil of two very complicated people with such ease, is the film’s biggest strength.

Nora and Hae might have been close one day, but today they are worlds apart. “He is so Korean” she tells Arthur, rather unconvincingly. Arthur feels hurt by her closeness to Hae, but does the decent thing by inviting him around.

With a third act dominated by Magaro’s breathtaking performance as the thoroughly decent Arthur, Past Lives feels like a film where emotional maturity is at the centre of the story. Lee and Yoo give two very measured and hugely relatable performances as two people bound forever by destiny. It’s barely believable that this is Song’s very first feature. Her film is simply sublime from start to finish.

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