Past Lives review: A compelling narrative of love beyond time, destiny and ‘what could’ve been’

Aishwarya Srinivasan
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Past Lives

Teo-Yoo and Greta Lee are the highlights of Past Lives, a heartbreakingly beautiful story about the importance of right timing!

Past Lives review: Past Lives is a painful yet weirdly wholesome love story of two childhood friends. The film is directed by Korean-Canadian director, Celine Song and she makes the story so simple, direct and sophisticated. The main crux of the story is based on a Korean phrase called ‘In-Yun’ which basically is a belief that any kind of interaction between two people in this life is owed to their relationship (or near encounters) from their past lives. You can either look at it with a poetic lens or like Greta Lee humorously points out in the film, it's just something that Koreans say when they want to seduce someone, so maybe you don't need to take it so seriously. The choice is yours, and the film is in fact about the choices you make in life.

Jung Hae-Sung (Tae-Yoo) and Na-Young (Greta Lee) are childhood friends who compete with each other for the first spot in academics. But in the middle of all that competition, they’re also each other’s best friends. And that friendship innocently turns into a crush. Na-Young even makes plans of marrying him when she grows up. But life had other plans for her. Her parents decide to immigrate to the United States in the hope of a better life. So little Na-Young and Hae-Sung are separated by continents and this was at a time when even having a mobile phone wasn't a thing. But 12 years later, on a lazy afternoon, while talking to her mother on the phone Na-Young finds Hae-Sung on Facebook, she even reads his post about finding his long lost friend aka her! So she hits him up and the two begin talking again over Skype like no time has passed. He was over the moon to see her again, she had popped into his head several times in the past 12 years afterall. She was the only person he could even think of during his mandatory military service. 12 years later, Na-Young’s Korean is a bit rusty and American but she tries her best for him. They talk day and night, through two different time zones and it is sort of unsaid but they know they’re falling for each other. 

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Here’s when Na-Young puts her foot down and says they should take a break because instead of focusing on her career, she is looking for flights to Seoul. A heartbroken and disappointed Hae-Sung has to accept his reality once again. But their ‘break’ isn’t really a break, they eventually lose touch and meet other people. Another 12 years pass, Na-Young is now married to Arthur (John Magaro) and Hae-Sung has just broken up with his girlfriend. He decides to finally come see Na-Young in New York and that’s when the two have face the realities of their relationship. 

There’s a scene in the film where Arthur asks Na-Young how she feels when she is with Hae-Sung and she says that she feels close to her Korean side but also seeing him have such a typical Korean answer to so many things in life makes her feel distant to him. And that is so well put. The film and their relationship is heavily based on identity. Once Na-Young, who only spoke Korean, became ‘Nora’ after moving to the states. English becomes her first language and the only two people she speaks to in Korean are her mom and Hae-Sung. So she might know the language and culture but her heart is now American and she started thinking like one too. 

Hae-Sung is this good looking, well built Korean man but when he talks to Na-Young, he is the sweetest guy ever. He has the simplest advice to give her and the most innocent questions to ask. Seeing him get heartbroken really tugs at your heart and watching him try so hard for his first love also makes you feel seen in a way. He is also more in love with the idea of Na-Young that he has. He is still in love with the girl he fell in love with back in school. She existed but she is not the same anymore. And his New York trip is his one final straw to see that.

Past Lives

But my favorite has to be his equation with Arthur. Our minds are so filled with toxic representations of masculinity that the first thing you expect them to do is fight or be bitter towards each other. But they were anything but that. It was heart melting to see the two being so overly understanding with each other. Arthur learns Korean whereas Hae-Sung learns English just so they can communicate better. Arthur even lets the two have their time and talk as much as they want even though it's killing him from the inside. Hae-Sung tells him that he understands how insecure this must make him and he’ll never do this again. It's as if the two men represent two different sides of her and love her in their own way. 

Over the years, we’ve seen many movies about the quintessential meet-cute kinda love, unrequited love and infidelity but rarely have we seen good representation of couples who loved each other deeply and passionately but couldn’t end up together because of circumstances. It's the ‘what could’ve been’ factor that really hurts you. What if Na-Young would’ve never moved to the US? Would they eventually get married and have a family? What if she would’ve never stopped talking to him 12 years ago? It’s the choices you make that lead you to your eventual destiny and this film is a soulful and beautiful love letter to anyone who has had to make tough choices in life and lose a partner in the process of that. It is a warm hug, soup for the soul, for anyone who has felt the pain of watching the love of your life marry someone else and swallow the hard truth that you will never have the happy ending you could have.

The story of Past Lives is told through its silence rather than its dialogues. The eyes meet and speak way more than words do and the Celine Song trusts her audience enough to know that they’ll understand the language of the eyes. This sweet and wholesome film is set in gorgeous backdrops throughout and you just cannot take your eyes off the stunning visuals. The language also is mostly Korean and a little bit of English here and there, which makes it so authentic and has that festival film kind of appeal.

In the end, when Na-Young hugs her husband and cries, you are not disappointed while thinking about why the two didn’t end up together. It’s her realization that she does not have that kind of chemistry with her husband and Hae-Sung understanding her in a deeper sense that makes your heart ache for her. The film totally lives up to its hype and the buzz that it created with its reviews and nominations. 

Past Lives is currently playing at selected theatres!

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