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21st September 2023

Past Lives review: Celine Song delivers an outstanding debut

Celine Song’s debut film about past lovers and what could have been will mend and simultaneously break your heart
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Past Lives review: Celine Song delivers an outstanding debut
Photo:Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in PAST LIVES @ A24

In-yun is a Korean concept that describes the fate of intertwined individuals. Although the circumstances in each life may differ; a stranger you sit next to on a bus could have been a lover in a previous life, your best friend could have just been your favourite barista in another. These wandering could-haves and what-if scenarios form the foundation of A24’s mesmerising new film – Past Lives.

Reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, the film is split into three chronological parts in which the central pair, Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), reunite every 12 years. They begin as childhood sweethearts separated by Nora’s family move to Canada. Later, they rekindle their companionship but miss opportunities to move their relationship past the platonic bounds. Throughout all these years, Nora and Hae Sung are distant but remain emotionally tied. Past Lives is not a conventional romance, even if you might yearn for it to be.

Even though she has extensive experience in theatre, Past Lives is the debut feature of South Korean-Canadian writer-director Celine Song. It’s a story that emerged “from a pretty real thing that happened to” Song. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Song explains how she thought of the film’s premise when her American husband met her Korean childhood sweetheart in a New York bar. The film’s opening shot and its later bar scene, aesthetically resembling a similar sequence in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express, is an ode to that moment.

At the heart of Past Lives is the idea of duality. There is conflict between the characters’ current lives and what could have been in their other pasts. A mental rivalry between Hae Sung’s memory of Na Young and present-day Nora is palpable. Vast establishing shots of Seoul and New York visually represent the character’s geographical and cultural differences. Yet these contradictions are interwoven so tightly with one another to create a story so perfectly bitter-sweet.

Song remarkably creates a window to ponder over people and the possibilities of what could have been in our own lives. Despite the endearing and near painful experience of doing so, an outlook of wholeheartedly appreciating the people who currently reside in our lives can also be gained. To paraphrase Nora’s mother, you gain an experience when you leave something behind. The essence of the film is a lesson to think but not dwell as it hurts more not to move on.

It’s astonishing how Song can convey these complex sentiments within a one hour and 45 minute runtime. Past Lives does not feel emotionally overbearing or heavy. Between shots of city landscapes associated with stress, the film contains serene shots of natural life that acts as a breather from the characters’ emotional confusion. An attitude of acceptance for the rhythms of life is adopted when watching, since the film’s subject of potential lost love is so universal.

As debut features go, Past Lives ranks high. Song’s storytelling moves with elegance as she employs an almost cyclical structure that cleverly mimics the aforementioned concept of in-yun. Moreover, her clear direction enables the film to emotionally stick beyond the cinema. 

Perhaps it’s down to in-yun or the laws of the universe that means we get to live in the same lifetime as Song’s incredible feature. I, for one, hope we get the chance to encounter it in the next life too.


Past Lives is out in cinemas.

Daniella Alconaba

Daniella Alconaba

Deputy film and TV editor and writer for The Mancunion.

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