Celine Song’s Debut Is Soulful, Tender, Devastating [Sundance]

Feb 17, 2023

Home Movie Reviews Past Lives Review: Celine Song’s Debut Is Soulful, Tender, Devastating [Sundance]

The story is simple, but there is beauty in its layers, its performances & the heart-wrenching & deeply moving connection between its characters.

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in Past Lives

Writer-director Celine Song’s feature debut, Past Lives, is absolutely stunning. The film’s story is simple, but there is so much beauty in its layers, its performances, and the heart-wrenching and deeply moving connection between its lead characters. Past Lives is incredibly emotional; it touches on how the passage of time, distance, and different lifestyles cannot break a powerful bond, though it can affect the nature of the relationship.

Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) are childhood friends in Korea. However, they’re forced to part ways when Nora’s family immigrates to Canada. Twenty-four years later, Hae Sung visits New York City where Nora is now making a living as a playwright. Twelve years prior, Hae Sung and Nora briefly reconnected online before they stopped talking. Now in their mid-30s, Nora and Hae Sung can’t deny they’re drawn together like a moth to a flame. They reminisce about their childhood while getting to know the people they’ve become all these years later.

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Past Lives examines the bond between two friends who once had crushes on each other. Circumstances and different life experiences have changed them, but there is still something meaningful that keeps them tethered to one another. The film is gentle and touching in its exploration of what if and what could have been. Song develops Nora and Hae Sung so beautifully; what they mean to each other scares them both, but they are open and vulnerable in a way they aren’t with others. On a deeper level, Nora and Hae Sung see in one another the children they used to be, while respecting each other as adults. They bring out different sides to their respective personalities that would otherwise go unexplored.

Song brilliantly crafts a poignant story that will pull at the heartstrings. The film could have easily become overly sappy, but Song’s directing is restrained but effervescent, bold yet soft. The story ebbs and flows like a sweet melody, one that is full of longing and untapped potential for its characters. Past Lives is meditative, bringing the audience along for Nora and Hae Sung’s journey, allowing time to contemplate what they’re seeing. The film takes its time, steadily laying out the story while providing the opportunity for viewers to truly feel the depth of emotion at every turn.

The craftsmanship displayed throughout Past Lives is extraordinary, and Song lovingly brings the narrative to life with gentle touches — pregnant pauses linger between Nora and Hae Sung that display everything that goes unsaid, while a focus on their longing, electric looks bring the emotional weight of the story to the forefront. The film’s attention to yearning and romance is magnificent, and its acknowledgment of reality as it relates to time and how different circumstances can change the course of two people’s lives is tremendous and thoughtful.

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo are incredible and devastating in their respective roles. Greta Lee conveys Nora’s hesitant openness with Hae Sung, along with her inability to be drawn to him time and again. Teo Yoo imbues Hae Sung with sensitivity and an open, gentle love. When the moment calls for it, they can both be devastating, charming, and warm as their characters question, learn, and spend time with one another. The actors’ chemistry is simply off the charts and viewers will be rooting for Nora and Hae Sung’s romance from the start.

The film isn’t waylaid by certain, and overused, narrative traps that would have diminished the film’s quality. Past Lives contemplates the idea of fate, of the connection between two people and what can bind and bring them together in any given lifetime. To say the film is riveting and magnetic would be a wild understatement. Past Lives will leave one with goosebumps; it’s soulful, tender — an understated triumph. Song’s directing and writing is confident, bringing so much heart and nuance to a simple story that is inspiring, delicate, and evocative.

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Past Lives premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival on January 21. The film is 106 minutes long and rated PG-13 for some strong language. It will be released later this year by A24.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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