[HanCinema's News] "Past Lives" Struggles to Gain Momentum in Late March

In theory, the Academy Award nominated film "Past Lives" should have had an obvious audience in South Korea. Though principally an American film made by Americans, writer/director Celine Song and lead actress Greta Lee are both ethnic Koreans. Lead actor Teo Yoo, while not exceptionally famous in South Korea, is not especially obscure either. So how is it that since its March 6th premiere, "Past Lives" has only accumulated 114,943 admissions in the twenty-four days since?


Perhaps the most obvious explanation is one of genre interpretation. "Past Lives" and its themes of fate in regard to childhood friends who through circumstance never quite become lovers are strongly exoticized as quintessentially Korean cultural ideas in the film. While this theming appeals to artistically inclined international audiences, in South Korea proper, such themes typically only appear in melodramas, a genre that is generally understood to be fairly lowbrow.

Another important factor is the extent to which "Past Lives" deals specifically with the immigrant experience. Greta Lee plays the perspective character, Nora, who immigrates to the United States with her parents as a child. Teo Yoo's character Hae-sung, who stayed behind in South Korea, does not have his own life as clearly exposited. While Nora's husband Arthur is a major character in his own right, the film tells us almost nothing of Hae-sung's girlfriend, who the text implies he is about to marry.

The few people in South Korea who have seen "Past Lives" have a lukewarm impression of it as well. The film has a self-reported 7.61 rating on Naver, although its self-reported rating on CGV's website is more robust at 89%. Much of the film's perception may just be down to the reporting of individual small groups. By contrast, "Past Lives" has a 95% Tomatometer rating from critics, 84% from regular users, and a 7.9 rating on IMDB.

International prestige traditionally plays a major role in South Korean film marketing, allowing "Parasite" to climb past the ten million viewer mark in 2019 and more recently helping "Exhuma" to do the same. But ultimately, such international prestige still has to be in the service of a product normal South Korean consumers can fundamentally relate to. "Past Lives" demonstrates how shared ethnic background alone can't overcome that.

Written by William Schwartz