Past Lives: The Story of The One That Got Away

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

Believed to be derived from Buddhism and the concept of reincarnation, in-yun (인연) is said to be the red string of fate, the tie between two people over the course of their lives, current and future. And yet, two people could be connected by in-yun, and things could still not work out. Past Lives tells the story of Nayoung (Greta Lee) and Haesung (Teo Yoo), two childhood friends who found their way back to each other more than once, but still somehow always miss the right timing.

The film walks viewers through Nayoung and Haesung’s childhood and adolescence together, their early adulthood when they first reconnect, and finally their “true” adulthood when the pair are in their mid-thirties and reconnecting for the last time. From the very beginning, it’s clear that the two have a connection, going on a date as young students with no cares in the world. The two see no one but each other, love each other past the “puppy love” stage, and think only of each other when they imagine marriage in the future. All that changes, however, when Nayoung’s family decides to immigrate to Canada, and the young girl is forced to leave behind her school, her classmates, her home, her Haesung, and even herself, transitioning from Moon Nayoung to Nora Moon.

Once known for being a crybaby, Nora somehow grows into a stoic young adult trying to find her footing in the world, no longer crying because “no one cared if [she] cried anymore.” One day, however, as Nora sits in her apartment in New York City video chatting with her mother, she decides to look up old classmates and friends from Seoul, and she finds that Haesung had been looking for her online. Reaching out to her old friend, Nora slowly thaws again, becoming Nayoung, who loves to laugh and smile as she spends her days chatting with Haesung. Unfortunately, the two disconnect once more, and by the time they meet again 12 years later, it’s too late for them to be anything but strangers.

Directed by Celine Song, Past Lives is filled with foreshadowing, symbolism, and a beautifully tragic story reminiscent of a modern day Romeo and Juliet. While Nayoung and Haesung clearly have feelings for each other, they both know they cannot act on those emotions, promising instead to see each other again in their next lives. The ending, however, should not come as a surprise to the audience, as it was hinted at from the very start of the movie. Ever since they were children, whenever Haesung would comfort Nayoung to stop her from crying, she’d walk ahead as he slowly followed behind. This becomes a recurring scene throughout the film, as Nayoung walks ahead or walks away, leaving Haesung behind each time to faithfully follow. On the Moon family’s last day in Seoul, it shows the two walking side by side on their way home. But while Nayoung walks up the stairs, Haesung changes course to walk down an alleyway instead of following behind. When the young boy’s mother questioned why they were immigrating, the young girl’s mother told her that “leaving things behind is gaining other things.” This mantra clearly sticks with the female protagonist as, despite the move and starting over in a new country more than once, Nayoung slowly finds her new home, her new self, and her new love, moving on from her past. Skillfully filmed, Past Lives is intentional with its countless framed shots and well-timed audio to emphasize that moment’s point.

Unique scenes are created through the use of movement, leading lines, and a lot of windows. Rather than using quick movements, there are quite a few moments of stillness and silence, when the world passes Nayoung and Haesung by, but the two of them are frozen in the moment with only eyes for each other. Despite being in a busy subway or by an active carousel, the audio is muted, and the world continues to move behind the two as they stand in silence, just looking at one another with loving and sorrowful gazes that speak more than words could. These still moments are paired with the perfect natural lines and framing that draws focus, and each moment the two protagonists can be seen through a window, it’s like looking into their hearts as they forget the world.

The actors also make the film all the more realistic and heart wrenching with their raw and genuine emotion while portraying their characters. In particular, Lee portrays cold and indifferent Nora with ease, yet when she breaks down into emotional Nayoung, her expressions are filled with so much sadness and pain that it becomes hard to imagine how detached she was just moments ago. For Yoo, what truly sells his performance is his very last scene. Haesung is the exact opposite of Nora, wearing his heart on his sleeve and making his feelings blatantly obvious for anyone to see, yet after he makes his final decision, viewers see him switch up and become the aloof one who can walk away from the situation. Also notable for his performance as Arthur, John Magaro displays the perfect balance between Nora’s guarded nature and Haesung’s openness, playing a line between showing his thoughts and keeping them concealed throughout his time in the film.

While the general public is paying close attention to projects produced by A24 especially as of late due to the success of its recent films, Past Lives has no problem living up to expectations. Telling a realistic love story that doesn’t hyperfocus on perfection and having a forced happy ending, the film is relatable, well-balanced, and thoroughly enjoyable. Through a combination of an engaging plot, well-executed cinematography, and empathetic acting, Past Lives is a film easily entices viewers for a repeat watch.

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