June 9, 2023 / Elevation Pictures
Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro
Directed By: Celine Song
Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, get separated after her family emigrates from South Korea. Two decades later, they reunite in New York City for one fateful week as they confront notions of destiny, love and life choices.
Written By Darren
Rating 4 out 5
Past Lives is a beautiful and deeply emotional romance that combined with an incredible screenplay from director Celine Song and a trio of wonderful lead performances, cements another hit for A24.
A good romance will emotionally break me, reducing me to tears with ease, and A24’s latest film has done just that. In her feature film debut, after writing for Amazon Prime’s The Wheel of Time and at the New York Theatre Workshop, Celine Song has created a romance film that feels authentic and special, delivering an achingly moving experience that sweeps you off your feet and takes on one emotional ride. It is not your typical romance, which comes as no surprise with A24 releasing it, but is equally as memorable and emotional, ensuring that this is another A24 film that fans of the arthouse studio are going to fall in love with.
Nora and Hae Sung were childhood sweethearts, but life separated them from each other when Nora’s family immigrated to Canada and left Korea behind. Years later, Nora and Hae Sung reconnect online and explore their relationship to see if they still have the same feelings for each other that they had as children, while navigating the individuals they have both grown into and their recollection of each other from the past.
Without any question, the film soars due to Song’s screenplay. While it is a romantic drama, the story is less concerned about those grand romantic moments, but instead focusing on developing its two leads and the chemistry between them. We meet Nora and Hae Sung at three different points in their lives, each time with a different connection, and explore who they are in that moment and how their perception of who they used to be and who they want to be influences their relationship. This focus allows for a soulful exploration of who we are in the moment and how this affects our relationships, helping the characters come to a hard truth about their relationship. The film sets you up to be emotionally vulnerable as you watch these two individuals who share a deep connection getting pulled apart from life, ensuring that by the time the third act rolls around that there won’t be a dry eye in the theatre. And under Song’s direction, the characters leap right off the screen and immediately burrow into your heart, resulting in a captivating tale of love, reflection and moving on that you won’t soon forget.
Bringing to life Song’s excellent screenplay is the leading trio of Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro. All three of them are exceptional, bringing to life the conflict and romance at the centre of the film’s story. Magaro, while having the smaller of the three roles, is quietly heartbreaking with his compassionate portrayal of Arthur. The manner in which you can see him fearing that he is about to lose everything as he allows Nora to reconnect with and unravel her feelings towards Hae Sung carries a raw intensity as you feel the possibility that he could end up with his heart being broken despite being the good guy in this scenario. Yoo has an infectious persona to his performance, that immediately has you falling in love with his character, making it easy to pine for him to romantically reconnect with Nora again after all those years apart. At the same time, you can feel his heartbreak as you watch him chase a person he has built up in his mind, who does not exist anymore today and slowly coming to the realization that he has been in love with a fantasy for years.
But it is Lee who is the standout as Nora. Known largely for her comedic roles, Lee stuns with a nuanced dramatic performance that is one of the year’s best. With the film told largely from Nora’s point of view, Lee takes the audience on a journey of self discovery as she navigates her relationship with Hae Sung, who she used to be, and the woman she now is. Her romantic chemistry with both Magaro and Yoo is outstanding, helping to create two meaningful relationships on screen that you instantly can relate too. But it is in the film’s final moments where Lee unleashes the true, raw power of her performance, delivering a truly gut wrenching vulnerability that is incredibly honest and will tear your heart right out of your chest. I would not be surprised given A24’s recent success at the Oscars if you see Lee’s name being talked about this awards season, as her performance is truly that incredible.
With an exceptional screenplay and direction from Celine Song that provides an honest look at love, relationships and an exploration of who we are as individuals, paired with the outstanding lead performance of Greta Lee which will leave you speechless and heartbroken, makes Past Lives one of the most unforgettable films of the year so far.