Past Lives (2023)
Directed by Celine Song
Starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro
As viewed at the 49th Annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF)
Much like they did with 2022’s Aftersun, A24 studios is allowing a first-time filmmaker to tell their story, their way with Past Lives, an intentional, articulate and surprisingly whimsical look at modern relationships from director Celine Song, a well-known Korean Canadian playwright making her first foray to the silver screen.
Full disclosure, the “pomp and circumstance” of seeing a film premiere at the opening party for the 49th Annual Seattle International Film Festival may have skewed my perception of this film. How could it not, though? The ornate and historic Paramount theater is not a typical place to view a film. The seats are uncomfortable, the sound is unidirectional, and the garish walls and pillars often distract from the screen in front of you. The silver wristbands with drink tickets nodules attached, the 360-photo booth and, of course, legacy media begging for subscriptions by offering free branded merchandise all make for a less than optimum setting to view a film.
Past Lives is a film that, by all accounts, I would have viewed on its opening weekend in June anyway. If you’ve read any of my past reviews, you’d know that I consider anything A24 releases to be “much watch cinema.”
Complicating things further, my Optimum Immersion was already tainted to the power of three from how many times I had unintentionally viewed the trailer. I already knew that a young Korean Woman would reconnect with a man from her past with her current husband along for the reminiscent ride. I also knew that I was in store for visually sparse, immersive and thoughtful film.
And guess what? The trailer didn’t lie.
Greta Lee plays Nora, a Korean immigrant who left home when she was 12 years old, saying goodbye to her friend Hae Sung and then reconnecting with him 12 years later via social media. Hae Sung is played by Yoo Teo and the actor exhibits an emotional depth that clashes with his bro-ish good looks. The first time the couple reconnect, at age 24, it is short-lived, but the bulk of the film centers around their relationship when they connect a third time at the age of 36. (And that’s enough plot for you, Dear Reader. I have already put cracks in your OI.)
Have I already convinced you to rush to your local theatre on June 2 when Past Lives opens widely? Or do you need just a bit more convincing? How about this – Past Lives isn’t just smart, it is brilliant in its depiction of real human interactions. And rarely in film is there a depiction of a love triangle that doesn’t focus on winners and losers, which is the case here.
I love the over-the-top Melodrama of Douglas Sirk films, the quirky back and forths of When Harry Met Sally (1989), the “will they or won’t they” of The Notebook (2004) and, yes, even the ridiculous first film in the Twilight saga (#teamjacob!) Each of these highly-enjoyable films expands upon the building blocks of past cinema, employing the cinematic tropes that tie our emotions to a certain character, the techniques that wrestle tears from our eyes, and the calculated scripts that delivers laughs to relieve tension. Past Lives does none of this. Instead, it feels like reading a memoir with subtle visual cues that remind you that you are indeed watching a film. The dialogue is effortless and real and doesn’t feel like a movie.
I love movies but more than movies I love stories and this one, the way it is told, truthful, messy and with no one to root for, makes for a unique and very special film.
For SIFF I have opted to not letter grade as I have on the 100’s of films previously reviewed. I will only be either recommending or not recommending. I RECOMMEND Past Lives from first time filmmaker Celine Song.