SIFF 2023: Past Lives

Directed by: Celine Song
Distributed by: A24

Written by Taylor Baker


Stretching over multiple decades “Past Lives” focuses on Nora (Greta Lee) an aspiring author and a sort of stand-in for first-time filmmaker Celine Song on whose life the film is loosely based. After a brief fourth wall-breaking introduction, the film proper begins with Nora in grade school developing a crush on Hae Sung, a boy in her class that will decades later find her in New York. Neither youngster is able to fully express or understand the feelings they have for one another before Nora and her family move to Canada. The feelings that she and Hae Sung develop as children stay bottled up in them until they reconnect over a decade later while Nora is a student in New York pursuing her dreams of becoming a renowned author.

Their reconnection is something that most audience members between their late 20s and early 40s will remember achingly, as it’s entirely performed via video calling on Skype, the scenes are replete with the Skype ringtone echoing into landscapes, cityscapes, skycars, and bedrooms alike. With Hae Sung still in South Korea and Nora in her cramped but mostly kept New York studio apartment the two struggle to navigate the time difference to reconnect, without either of them admitting to the depth of their feelings for one another. This unspoken truth of how they feel begins to give way to frustration and eventually, Nora puts an end to their contact, and once again they don’t speak for nearly a decade.

Song excels especially in her dramatic sequences that take place between two people in person. Whether Nora and Hae Sung, Nora and Arthur (her husband), or Arthur and Hae Sung, she’s at her best as a dramatist balancing two full-bodied characters against each other with a depth of something unsaid between them. Despite the usefulness of the character arcs during the Skype romance portion of the film, it does lag, slowing down some of the momentum she’d built by moving so abruptly in the opening portion of the film. When it settles into a smoothness while Nora is on an artist residency retreat and she seduces her soon-to-be husband Arther (John Magaro) the plot’s momentum moves quickly despite feeling languid. 

The film reaches its culminating moment when Hae Sung comes to New York to see Nora. For closure, for confirmation, for recognition, for acknowledgment, and for a slew of other things both tangible and intangible. The gravitas with which the husband character Arthur is written as he navigates this portion of the film and the rawness that the lead actors wear in their performances elevate the film and confirm Song as one of the most exciting screenwriting dramatists since Florian Zeller burst on the scene with 2020’s “The Father.” “Past Lives” is a strong first feature from a beginning filmmaker with a clear handle on her written voice.

“Past Lives” Trailer

“Past Lives” was screened as part of the 49th edition of the Seattle International Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on film on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

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