"...will leave you pondering where you ended up and where you could have gone"

The Year's Best Directorial Debut

(082423) "Two Roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both."
 -Robert Frost

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
Oppenheimer, even 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 critics.

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), The Last 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 A24's films.

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 nowhere.

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 blockbusters. In English and Korean with English subtitles

Written & Directed by:    Celine Song
Starring:    Greta Lee, Tee You, John Magaro
Released:    06/23/23 (USA)
Length:    106 minutes
Rating:    PG13 for some strong language.
Available On:    Available for streaming on Apple TV and ITunes.
 And at press time it was playing at a few Chicago
 land theatres

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to and His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

Come to the next session of the Monthly Poetry Show on the first Saturday of every month at Tangible Books in Bridgeport from 7-9 at 3324 South Halsted hosted by Vittorio Carli.

-Upcoming Features-
September 2: Jae Green, Aga La Magica, Adrienne Sunshine Nadeau, Bronmin Shumway and Jacqueline Wolk
October 7 -Charlotte Hart and Michael LP

PAST LIVES © 2023 A24
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2023 Alternate Reality, Inc.


"Johnny and Clyde"


"Blue Beetle"