Past Lives

Past Lives Is the Definitive Love Story of the Year

Dept. of Sliding Doors


Past Lives has been making waves in the international film festival circuit for being something of a heartbreaker. And if anyone knows me, I love a good sobfest. I practically thrive on it. But this was more than just a poignant story about childhood sweethearts wrested apart and reconnecting years later. It is an achingly beautiful experience, that not only lives up to all the talk, but one that provides comfort and solace in the bittersweet. And yes, your tear-ducts will be working overtime, rest assured. 

To put simply, Past Lives is the sort of the film I’ve been waiting for my whole life, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. 

A Beautiful Tragedy

Past Lives

Split between three timelines, we first meet Na-young and Hae-sung at the tender age of twelve years. They are inseparable, bound by fierce academic rivalry, and childhood infatuation. That is until Na-young’s family immigrates to Canada, and their budding romance is cut short. We catch up with them twelve years on, Na-young, now Nora, living in New York as an aspiring playwright, and Hae-sung, an engineering student in Seoul. By chance, they reconnect over Facebook and fill the gaps of their missing years over video calls. But even digitisation cannot bridge the physical distance between them and Nora decides to cut contact with a promise to return. It is, however, another twelve years before Nora and Hae-sung see each other again, this time in the same postcode, but in very different places in their lives – with Nora now happily married and Hae-sung at a crossroads.

Celine Song absolutely delivers in this stunning debut that is soft and delicate on the surface, yet feels like an absolute gut-punch. The film is anchored by the soulful performances of Greta Lee as Nora and Teo Yoo as Hae-sung, whose chemistry is charged with soft yearning and hopeless frustration. Every single scene is thick with emotion. The dialogue is seared with a certain melancholy that is equally pensive and deeply sorrowful. But there is more to be said with what is unspoken, through their longing glances, minimal contact and a delicate awkwardness of a time lost.

Past Lives

The film’s allure lies in how it takes a simple concept of first love and parallels it between fantasy and reality. First loves are held with a certain tenderness that never quite carries forward with those who come after. The idea of an “almost,” or “what if,” or “one that got away” lets us imagine the lives we could have led, and the realities we could have lived, had we chosen differently. What if you stayed? What if you tried? Would you have been happier? Would you have been more successful?

What Past Lives does is nurture these fantasies and ask those questions, but also provide quiet comfort in the truth of our reality. We don’t necessarily seek out the “what-ifs” because of our profound unhappiness in the present, we seek them out because we could not find the much-needed closure from our past, and that is what lingers with us. There is a point in which Nora and her husband, Arthur, are in bed, mulling over whether this was the life that Nora had imagined for herself. To which Nora responds with, “This is where I ended up. This is where I’m supposed to be.” The film never attempts to romanticise either possibilities that Nora could have lived out, it only tells us that time will continue moving even if we’re stuck between the fragments of the past.

Right Person, Wrong Time

Past Lives

Past Lives is also very much a reflection of the immigrant experience. Hae-sung connects Nora to her youth, a piece of her Korean identity that was once all-encompassing, where she was only ever known as Na-young, the girl who cried when she wasn’t top of her class. He symbolised the life she left behind, of what she suppressed in tireless pursuit of the American dream. That which is assimilating at the cost of everything you’ve ever known, in order to make way for an ideal that promises security.

Similarly, Hae-sung struggles to reconcile with the girl in his memory and the woman in his reality, neither of whom are willing to give up their aspirations to be with him. The film speaks to more than just the bonds of young love being broken by time and space, but that of a diasporic dilemma.

Past Lives thrives on warm nostalgia and past musings, while being profoundly sincere in telling us that we are but a sum of our choices. It validates the loudness of our feelings, in the silence of our persistence. It honours the future you live while irrevocably grieving what could’ve been. It is the closure we need from the “what-ifs” that makes us lose sleep. It is tender yet powerful storytelling. 

And when you’re done sobbing over this beautiful gut-punch of a film, be sure to text your friends, your family, your neighbour, your co-workers, literally everyone you know, to give it a go – because pain, in this case, should be shared.

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