Combustible Celluloid Review - Past Lives (2023), Celine Song, Celine Song, Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Seung Ah Moon, Seung Min Yim, Ji Hye Yoon, Choi Won-young, Min Young Ahn, Jonica T. Gibbs, Emily Cass McDonnell, Federico Rodriguez, Conrad Schott, Kristen Sieh
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With: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Seung Ah Moon, Seung Min Yim, Ji Hye Yoon, Choi Won-young, Min Young Ahn, Jonica T. Gibbs, Emily Cass McDonnell, Federico Rodriguez, Conrad Schott, Kristen Sieh
Written by: Celine Song
Directed by: Celine Song
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language
Running Time: 106
Date: 06/23/2023

Past Lives (2023)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Inyeon Skin

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I missed the press screening of Celine Song's Past Lives due to a scheduling conflict, but everyone I spoke to after that day told me the same thing: "It's the best movie I've seen this year." When you actually see it, you might be surprised that it's not exactly a Parasite or an Everything Everywhere All at Once. It has no slam-bang or dazzle. It's a small, beautiful film of moments, feelings, and poetry, and it has an exquisite flow. Filmmaker Song is also a playwright, and the story is seemingly based in part on her own life, but, in her filmmaking debut, she shows a strong command of the medium.

It begins with a stunner of an opening. Three people are sitting at a bar, and we don't yet know who they are. As we watch them, an unseen couple tries to guess their relationship to one another, but ultimately come up with nothing. The real story begins in Korea, twenty-four years ago, as 12 year-olds Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) attend school together. They walk home together, and even go on a charming little "date," before we learn that Na Young's family is moving to the United States.

Twelve years later, Na Young has changed her name to "Nora" (played by Greta Lee), lives in New York, and works as a playwright. Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who grew up in Korea, finds her online and they set up a series of Skype conversations. They still seem to have a connection, but when they realize that they can't see each other in person for well over a year, Nora ends their chats. Meanwhile, she goes to a writer's retreat and seduces Arthur (John Magaro).

Another twelve years pass (the characters seem very subtly aged with a little makeup), and Nora and Arthur are married, still living in New York. Hae Sung has finally made the leap and bought a plane ticket. He finds Nora and they spend a little time walking around the city and talking. Later, Hae Sung meets Arthur, and even though Hae Sung speaks only a little English and Arthur speaks only a little Korean, they manage to communicate.

One might assume that Past Lives is about Nora's choosing between the two men, and even the characters assume that — Arthur has a memorable bit of dialogue in which he describes their own story as if it had been more conventional — but it's not the case, or at least it's not that simple. It's really about the characters working through their emotions, grappling with things like destiny (i.e. the "past lives" of the title), chemistry, culture, and more. At one point Arthur tells Nora that she makes his world a lot bigger, and he wonders if he does the same for her.

It's a remarkably mature discourse, one that the characters take on with gratitude and understanding, never with panic or rash decisions. I keep thinking about the ending, which — given how difficult it must have been to choose an ending for this story — is absolutely perfect. And it's perfectly composed, as a long tracking shot, first to the left, and then to the right. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Song is a fan of filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, as she includes Ozu-style "pillow" shots, which are more or less just views of the city, that allow the viewer to take a breath and reflect in-between dialogue scenes.

The performances, especially the one by Greta Lee, are glorious. Nora tends to speak softly but bluntly, and yet she has this very subtle, sly naughty side. When she first meets Arthur at the writer's retreat, the first thing she tells him is that "you got the worst room." Her smile is accompanied by a gleam in her eye that suggests devilish thoughts. In another scene, when Nora and Hae Sung meet in New York, Hae Sung has dressed up in a nice shirt and trousers, but looks stiff and uncomfortable. Nora appears in a loose, flouncy outfit and looks relaxed and breezy.

Past Lives has many small treasures among its 106 sublime minutes — Nora fixing her hair before going on Skype, Hae Sung handing Nora a wrapped sandwich, etc. — but it would be irresponsible and useless to start listing them all. It's a special film to be sure, but what helps it in 2023 is that it's not a superhero movie, or the latest in a franchise that's gone on too long, or the kinds of movies that people say get them to come back to theaters. It's a film that is actually worth coming back to the theater for.

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