Past Lives (2023) Review – A love story of jaw-dropping maturity

By Marc Miller
Published: July 3, 2023 (Last updated: January 8, 2024)
2023 film Past Lives Review


Past Lives soars. Writer and director Celine Strong’s debut is a love story of jaw-dropping maturity.

Here is our review of the 2023 film Past Lives, which does not contain spoilers.

Whatever you heard about Celine Song’s stunning film, Past Lives, believe the hype. Song’s film is a contemporary love story of extraordinary honesty and heartbreaking intimacy. Ms. Song’s script is full of anxious regrets and endearing sadness about the road not taken.

In particular, Song’s characters cannot manifest the desires of their requited love and deny the innate need to realize what they’ve longed for.

Past Lives (2023) Review and Plot Summary

Past Lives tells the story of Na Young and Hae Sung, two childhood friends who lost touch after Na’s family emigrated to Canada. Na’s parents made her change her name to Nora (Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’s Greta Lee) to assimilate themselves into their new culture.

Hae (Decision to Leave’s Teo Yoo) has never forgotten Na. After finishing his military service, Hae reaches out twelve years later through Nora’s father’s social media page; he’s a filmmaker, not realizing Na changed her name.

After two decades, after falling in and out of touch, they meet for one weekend in New York City.

Song, who cut her teeth as a playwright and staff writer for the Prime Video fantasy series The Wheel of Time, has made a stunning debut film with Past Lives.

Despite the limited cast, the script never feels like it was staged. Song’s writing emphasizes contemplative and intimate performances, where a single glance or stoic pause can convey more than a lengthy monologue akin to Aaron Sorkin.

For instance, look at Greta Lee’s immediate reaction at the bar when Yoo’s Hae wears his emotions on his sleeve and lays them bare for her. It is worth paying special attention to cinematographer Shabier Kirchner‘s (Small Axe) use of 35 mm film. Kirchner enhances every steamy stare and slightly watery eye, immersing the viewer in a great cinematic moment.

And that’s where Past Lives soars. Song’s impeccable pacing and structured script build as you begin to watch Hae and Nora’s anxious moments in rediscovering the wonderment of first love and finally, cathartically, let those feelings be heard.

In the film’s third act, many may find fault as humans are fragile, but Song chooses to have her movie on a strange path of jaw-dropping maturity.

While Hae’s heartrending turn will receive most of the buzz here, and deservingly so. However, it’s John Magaro‘s (First Cow) portrayal of Arthur’s introspection of his wife and his marriage that is excruciating.

Is Past Lives good or bad?

Past Lives is a great film, and Greta Lee gives the film’s star-making performance here. The character of Nora represents what makes Past Lives such a modern twist on the cinematic love story. By drawing from her own life, Song incorporates a character study with themes of love and the immigrant experience. We’ve seen this before in the Oscar-nominated adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.

Like Eilis, watch as Lee’s Nora is pulled and swayed with the responsibility of taking advantage of her new opportunities (meaning and purpose) and innately being drawn back to where she came from (reunification).

The mask Nora puts on to cover her true feelings is used as a lens by Lee to deal with intertwined feelings of love, culture, and, most importantly, the boundaries we set for ourselves without knowing we can tear them down at any time.

Is Past Lives worth watching?

There’s always a film that emerges over the summer that becomes the media darling with proclamations that this piece of cinema will be an awards contender. Frankly, I stopped caring about that subject years ago because it doesn’t matter if Past Lives takes home a dozen statues or watches from the cozy comfort of one’s couch.

Ms. Song’s film will withstand the test of time because of the indelible mark it leaves after the first viewing and stays with you long after it’s over.

What did you think of the 2023 film Past Lives? Comment below.

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