"Two Roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both."
Past Lives is an outstanding philosophical romance about the cross-cultural love
triangle between a Korean man, a Korean American woman, and, a white American
man. Like the Robert Frost's poem, The Road Not Taken, it makes us consider
whether the choices we made in life were the right ones or if there is one right
choice, or even if the choices we make matter in the end.
This is as superior to a typical romantic film like Pretty Woman or a Hallmark
film as Citizen Kane is to a typical 70s made-for-TV biopic or a Fritz Lang film
noir is to Basic Instinct II. The difference is that the film violates many of
the expectations some people have of films in this genre. To tell more would
spoil the film’s many delicious surprises.
Another difference is that the characters here are much better developed and
mufti dimensional than usual, and they seem more like real people that evolve
(in some cases, don’t evolve) over time. I felt like I knew the fictional
characters in this film better than some actual people in my life, which is rare
for a film. The movie takes place on several continents and over several
decades. Although it is a small, modest film that starts slow, it has a way of
creeping up on you. In its own way, it is as impressive as
though the films have opposite strengths.
Past Lives was directed by the talented newcomer: Celine Song. It is arguably
the finest debut film by a filmmaker of any race in a long time. Song is
Canadian-Korean and the film clearly draws much from her cross-cultural
heritage. Most of her work experience has been in theatre and she wrote the
popular play: Endings. Like this film, it was almost universally acclaimed by
This film came out of the magnificent A24 company, which has achieved a
reputation for putting out and making terrific ground-breaking Indy films and
putting art before commerce. Some of their features include: The Lobster (2016),
20th Century Women (2016), Moonlight (2016), The Florida Project (2017),
First Reformed (2017), Hereditary (2018), Uncut Gems (2019),
The Souvenir (2018),
Black Man in San Francisco (2019), Zola (2021),
The Green Knight (2021),
The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), and
Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) all
of which have made my top 10 films of the year lists on this web site.
A24 has earned an astounding 49 Academy Award Oscar nominations and 16 wins. The
company has become for film what Vertigo was for comics in the 90s. If a film is
associated with A24, it takes on a like a sheen of excellence. A24 has among the
best track records of any Indy film company and Past Lives is one of the best
Past Lives begins with a shot of three people in a New York Bar, an Asian male,
an Asian female, and a Caucasian male. The onlookers (who we never see) try to
guess the relationship between the three based solely on how they interact with
one another. One guess is that the Caucasian is a friend of the couple while
another guess is that they all are all platonic work colleagues. The onlookers
are perfect stand-ins for the audience. They help create a mystery about the
three people, which sets up the movie perfectly. It makes us wonder about them
ourselves. The three people turn out to be the main characters in the film. The
Asian woman is Nora (played to perfection by Greta Lee), the Korean man is Hae
Sung (played with restraint and reserve by Teo Yoo), the Caucasian man, Arthur
(John Magaro) is her reasonable current husband.
Past Lives flashes back to Nia Yung (later called Nora) and the boy Hae Sung, as
kids in South Korea. He undoubtedly has a big crush on her and it’s clear that
any feelings she may have for him are nowhere as intense. One of the most
memorable scenes is of them as kids watching home together; he is so in awe of
her and worships her so much he can’t bear to look at her. The film is like
Showing Up and other Kelly Reichardt films, because it is masterful at making
the small seem big and the inconsequential consequential.
They become as close as can be, but their life changes dramatically because
Nia’s family has decided to move to Canada (the film’s writer/director was also
a Korean transplanted to Canada). The separation seemingly affects him much more
deeply, and it leaves him heartbroken.
The film then flashes forward 24 years when the main characters are attending
Seol University. The creative Nora is attending in hopes of becoming a
playwright while the more practical Hae is studying engineering. He seems still
consumed with thoughts of her and he reconnects with her on Facebook. They seem
to be in an embryonic stage of a budding romantic relationship, chatting
frequently on Skype. But she abruptly cuts it off when she decides their
relationship is distracting from her studies (and perhaps to her assimilation
into Toronto culture) but she also probably thinks the relationship is going
The pair do not see each other for twelve years and It turns out that Nora has
since married a Caucasian man and fellow writer named Arthur (John Magaro) and
yes, he is the white guy with the Asian people in the first scene.
Arthur knows all about their history and he says “The guy flew 13 hours to be
here. I’m not going to tell you that you can’t him or something.” But he
understandably has some fear and trepidation about the whole thing and he says,
“Am I the evil white guy who gets in the way of destiny?”
As the pair gaze longingly at each other’s eyes in a scene we see that if
circumstances were different they might have been together and still might end
up as a couple. But will the somewhat modern woman disrupt the comfortable life
she has put together to go with a man who represents traditionalism and her past
or will she move forward?
This very spiritual romance alludes to “Inyun” which relates to the Buddhist
idea of reincarnation. If you brush against someone or encounter them you must
have known them in a past life. This encourages the b believers to examine the
connections between themselves and makes us think about the nature of
coincidence or synchronicity. Also, it gives us a sense that we are not just
isolated molecules but we are all connected in some cosmic way.
The soundtrack includes memorable numbers that perfectly set up and reinforce
the narrative and are often linked to what is going on. When Nora and Ha Sung
reunite in a bar, we hear Don’t Look Back by Van Morrison’s old band, Them.
Interestingly enough after Ha Sung and Nora converse in Korean and Arthur feels
left out, John Cale’s “You Know More than I Know” plays in the background.
Appropriately when Nora explains the concept of In Yun to her husband, Arthur,
the song, “In Yun” is playing. When Nora and Ha Sung meet after many years, the
song “Staring at a Ghost” plays.
The film also includes one of the best uses of split screen (which was a very
popular and defining film device in the 70s) that I have seen in a long time. At
one-point Noa Young goes up a staircase while Ha Sung goes down into an alley
capturing in a perfect visual way, the two people going in totally different
directions in life.
Part of what makes the film so special and rare is that like some of Richard
Linklater’s best films (including the Before Sunrise trilogy and Boyhood or even
the Michael Apted 35 up doc), it makes you feel like you have experienced half
of the lives of several characters in a film with them.
Past Lives will leave you pondering where you ended up and where you could have
gone. The film also teaches us the importance of time; for if you miss the right
moment, your future can be unalterably changed forever, either for the better or
the worse. Past Lives is like a small delicate flower with a lingering
intoxicatingly beautiful aroma, and it will stay in your memory, a very long
time after you’ve forgotten all of the year’s more hyped, loud, and obvious
In English and Korean with English subtitles