[HanCinema's Film Review] "Past Lives"

When they were kids in Seoul, Nora (played by Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo) were the best of friends. Shortly before Nora's family moved to Canada, they had one sweet little kid date with each other. Flash forward twelve years, Nora and Hae Sung seek each other out via social media. Another twelve years, they've mostly moved on. "Past Lives" poses the question, what significance does this relationship have on their present day lives, particularly as Nora has married Arthur (played by John Magaro)?


The answer is entirely an emotional one, as writer/director Celine Song is clearly hoping that we see these three characters as ciphers rather than interpreting the specifics of their actual lives. This portrayal is why "Past Lives" has received countless accolades- to which this review will be one of the few exceptions. It's no exaggeration to say that this sort of self-involved narcissism is precisely what drove me to specialize in South Korean films in the first place- actual South Korean films tend to prioritize character and context over mere abstract feelings.

For an example of what I mean by this, we get hints that Hae Sung is in a thankless salaryman job, and that his nostalgia for Nora is at least partially a rebellion against South Korean cultural norms. Key word there being hints. "Past Lives" is so vague about what Hae Sung's job even is that his life is presented as little more than a vague stereotype. The script sees no irony in looking down on South Korean office culture for lacking paid overtime while its own characters get around in ubers.

"Past Lives" suffers particularly in this regard because I'd seen "Work to Do" hardly a couple days prior, and what a contrast! The ennui felt by that film's leading salaryman is directly tied to his economic and employment conditions, presenting a stark portrait of South Korea in decline. Hae Sung in "Past Lives" barely even exists beyond his nostalgic fixation on Nora, and Nora herself is only slightly more well-defined as a character because she has two relationships and the other characters only one.

Who is Nora, really? "Past Lives" premises itself on being an exploration of her identity, but we honestly don't really have any idea. We know that she's a playwright, whose ambitions gradually go down from Nobel Prize to Pulitzer Prize to Tony Award, yet there's not even a hint as to what her plays are even about. Arthur's even worse- he wrote something called "Boner" which could mean basically anything.

The problem with the nostalgic narcissism of "Past Lives" is that for Nora and Hae-seung's relationship to feel meaningful, we need to have some idea how they're different as people for having known each other. And we just don't. Nora seduces Arthur almost immediately after nonchalantly giving up on her emotional charged not exactly a long distance relationship with Hae Sung. That they felt something for each other, well, that's about the only concrete fact that "Past Lives" ever really establishes. And that on it's own, just isn't all that impressive.

Written by William Schwartz


"Past Lives" is directed by Celine Song, and features Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Moon Seung-ah, Leem Seung-min, Choi Won-young. Release date in Korea: 2024/03/06.

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