Past Lives Review. Destined to be one of the best movies of 2023

Sundance. Greta Lee is an absolute marvel in this fluid and tender love story about a Korean immigrant torn between two men and herself.

He had to walk to her from all the writers’ retreats in all the summer towns all over New York. As the sun fades on a perfect Montauk night, setting the stage for a first kiss that, like one of Celine Song’s transcendent “Past Lives” most powerful moments, will ultimately be left to the imagination,” Nora (Greta Lee) recounts. Arthur (John Magaro) on the Korean concept In-Yoon, which suggests that people are destined to meet each other if their souls have overlapped several times before. When Arthur asks Nora if she really believes all that, the Seoul-born woman sitting across from him invitingly replies that it’s just “Koreans say it to seduce someone.” Needless to say, it works.

But as this subtle but hauntingly beautiful film continues to move forward in time, Nora and John’s wet clay turns into marriage in one fell swoop, and the real life they create together cannot help but go hand in hand. the fantasy that Nora seemed destined to share with the childhood sweetheart she had left behind in her birthplace. He and Hae Sung (“Leto” star Teo Yoo) haven’t seen each other in the flesh since they were in grade school, but their bond has never been completely severed.

Instead, they seem to come together unexpectedly every 12 years, as Hae Sun returns to his first jolt with the cosmic regularity of a comet passing through the sky above. The closer he gets to interacting with Nora, the more complicated his relationship with fate becomes. And with each passing scene in this film, all so quiet and sacred that even their most uncertain moments seem to repeat themselves like an ancient prayer, it becomes easier to understand why Nora summoned Ying-Yun to that seismic Montauk. night Of course, maybe she really was using it as a pick-up line, knowing it would give her (neurotic Jewish) husband-to-be the green light to make a move. But then again, what could be more tempting to man in this world than the promise of divine providence?

On paper, Past Lives might sound like a diasporic riff on a Richard Linklater romance, condensing the entire Before trilogy into one film. In practice, however, this gentle love story almost entirely forgoes any kind of “Baby, you’re going to miss that plane” drama in favor of uncovering more untold truths about how people end up with (and through) each other. other. Which is not to say that Song’s autobiographical debut fails any classic “who will she choose?” Spence when it ends, but rather to emphasize how inevitable it seems that Nora’s man crisis turns into the bittersweet of recognition instead of a megaton punch to the gut. Here’s a romance unfolding with the mournful resignation of the Leonard Cohen song that inspired Nora’s English name: It’s a film less interested in wooing its heroine with a “runaway” than in letting her come to terms with the version of herself she kept as a souvenir when she left.

As we see in the first act of this fluid but uncompromisingly linear film, Nora’s family makes the decision to leave Seoul when she is young, and that choice has the same one-sided impact on her life trajectory as her Korean one. rusted away when he reconnects with Hye Sung on Skype in his twenties. Its traditional Koreanness becomes a foreign object for him. This is not only a kind of screen for herself, but also so opaque that Nora does not even notice how handsome her former math rival has become as a grown man. (How convenient for these two that each of their childhood sweethearts turned out to be ridiculously attractive. And also awkward.) To him, Hae Sun is every Korean boy, and maybe even Korea itself. At the same time, he is the only person on a planet of billions who knows who Nora was before she was reincarnated into a hyphenated identity that she has maintained and expanded throughout her adult life. He knows the one Nora that Arthur will never get to meet, and couldn’t hope to understand even if he did.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that Arthur is ultimately going to portray himself as an “evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.” Song’s gentle raindrop script refuses to paint any of its characters with such a broad and/or predictable brush; People in “past lives” are a lot like us, ie scared and withdrawn, but generally kind.

Well, what? men they are afraid, at least. The denial that Nora maintains as the meaning behind Hae Sung’s impromptu third-act trip to New York may not leave room for much other emotion, but it only goes some way to explaining the reckless stance Lee inspires in her role. The “Russian Doll” star infuses all of Song’s beautiful yet inflexible lines with some mixed feelings.

Whether she’s playing Nora as a twenty-year-old RA MFA student who finds Hae-sung on Facebook 1.0 with an enthusiasm she can’t accept, or as a thirty-something playwright who grieves for a part of herself that she never won’t be back, Lee’s amazing performance cuts it short. the heart of his character’s identity with the accidental grace of a surgeon operating on a perfect stranger. He uses Nora’s personal confidence and creative ambitions as a shield to protect himself from what could have been, which makes the rare moments when he lets his guard down feel almost unbearably vulnerable. It also makes it easier to understand why, despite the strength of her internet connection with Hae Sung, Nora can’t stand the thought of immigrating. twice — first Toronto and then Manhattan, only to end up with a guy from Seoul.

The sheer immediacy of Lee’s performance allows you to feel every frame of “Past Lives” on your skin, which is very important for a film that conveys its meaning not through narrative but through feeling; a film that owns its laid-back rhythms and ethereal confusion with a confidence that makes Song’s “people don’t talk like that” dialogue a crucial plus. Magaro and Yu struggle to match Lee’s pace. both actors are endearing without ever seeming disingenuous, Yoo in particular handling his character’s hopeless romanticism with such authority that Hae Sung never seems opportunistic or self-pitying.

Every other facet of the film conspires to reinforce the semi-reality that sets the cast in motion. Shabier Kirchner’s long-lens 35mm cinematography emphasizes the menace of distance inherent in Song’s meticulous works (at one point a character is framed out of frame in a way that took my breath away), Grace Yun’s production design splits the difference between “repressed romance”. and “an overpriced tale,” while Christopher Beer and Daniel Rossen’s crystalline score allows the film to hit its mark right from the start.

Past Lives can be divided into three distinct sections, but its fractured chronology never feels particularly elliptical. There are no “jumps”, no “12 years later”. Always “IT’S BEEN 12 YEARS”, an emphatic word choice that conveys the sense of time passing through Nora’s fingers and gathering at her feet, as it should in a film that isn’t about a woman trying so hard. decide between two men. because it’s a movie about someone trying to square the essence of life’s “necessity” with the immigrant’s sense of having started his life twice or thrice. Einmal ist keinmalAs the German proverb says: “What happens, but once, might not have happened at all.”

That tension adds extra pressure to every moment in Song’s film, especially as Nora begins to confront more openly what it means for the world to just keep moving forward. The rare missteps here resonate with the disproportionate volume of sound they’re playing in the moment, to the point that something as benign as the film’s out-of-place final shot lingers in the memory like a blob the size of the Chrysler Building. But even that lends itself to a story about the small parts of our lives that loom so large in the rearview mirror that they threaten to overwhelm everything we can see, and a story that has no room for regret. “If you leave something,” Nora’s mother says at the beginning of this extraordinary film, “you gain something.” I guess it depends on who you choose to leave it with and what they can give you back in (eternal) return.

Grade: A-

“Past Lives” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release it in the US later this year.

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