Despite being one of the best movies of 2023, by the time I heard the rumblings about Past Lives, it was already on its way out of theaters. I spent several months living vicariously through praising social media posts, waiting for the moment the movie would be released on a streaming platform. When awards season began and more people started talking about it, I realized there was no way I could wait any longer and decided to pay the digital rental fee so I could finally understand what all the hype was about. I can honestly say, it was the best $6 I’ve ever spent, because
Past Lives is now one of my favorite A24 movies of all time.
Told largely in Korean, the movie follows Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), two Korean children who form a tight friendship. Unfortunately, Nora and Hae Sung are separated when her family decides to leave South Korea and emigrate to Canada. 12 years later, in 2012, Nora stumbles upon Hae Sung on Facebook. The two reconnect via Skype and it’s like no time has passed at all. The distance becomes too much for Nora though, and she proposes they focus on their professional lives for a little while until they can find the time to meet up in person.
Another 12 years pass before Nora and Hae Sung finally get to reconnect in person when he comes to visit New York City. Though things are far more complicated now that Nora is married, the two still have a bond that withstands the test of time.
It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes Past Lives such an amazing movie. That said, after watching it twice in my allotted 24-hour rental period, I’ve come up with why it works for me.
The Characters Are Allowed To Grow While The Story Progress Slowly But It Never Gets Dull
One thing I love about A24 movies in general is how character-driven they tend to be. Moonlight follows Chiron through three different phases of his life. Eighth Grade deep dives into Kayla’s final days of middle school, while Lady Bird explores similar adolescent growing pains on an older scale. Past Lives is no different.
There are no big explosions or ornate set pieces. Instead, the story is grounded in Nora and Hae Sung as they navigate through life. And yet, I never found myself wondering when something big was going to happen or how much of the movie was left, like I often find myself doing.
It’s Past Lives’ ability to take things slow and let their characters grow, that makes it such an appealing movie to watch. It definitely put me at ease and made me appreciate the quiet, small moments in my own life. After all, not every major change in life comes with confetti and cake. Sometimes it’s the little things that matter the most — like a Skype call with your childhood best friend.
It’s A Romance With A Bittersweet Happy Ending
As a self-proclaimed romantic movie enthusiast, I had my apprehensions about watching Past Lives because I knew it didn’t have the traditional Hollywood happily-ever-after I’ve been accustomed to. Even though Nora and Hae Sung don’t romantically end up together, their love story carries a special sort of weight that deserves to be celebrated.
Instead of diminishing their relationship and complex feelings for one another, Nora and Hae Sung take the mature route — acknowledging the feelings they might harbor, but understanding that friendship is all they can have now, and they’re mostly okay with that. Sure, it stings a bit as evident by the final moments of the movie, but just because they don’t end up together romantically doesn’t mean they still don’t love each other.
Is there a part of me that wishes things could have worked out for these childhood best friends? Of course, I wouldn’t be a hopeless romantic without that belief. But I think there’s a stronger message in them choosing to be in each other’s lives in a platonic sense because they understand that they weren’t meant to be romantically in this life. Not to mention, Past Lives is able to end realistically instead of in a really dark place like some romances.
I Love The Concept Of “In Yun”
Part of what makes the bittersweet ending work is the concept of “In Yun,” which Nora explains towards the beginning of the film. It’s a Korean concept that explains the bonds people share with each other over many lifetimes. To simplify it further, a person you barely brush past in this life might be your soulmate in another life because we’re constantly interacting with the same souls in different ways.
“In Yun” is key in the way Nora and Hae Sung define their relationship, especially as they start to realize that they’re not romantically destined for each other in this life. In fact, their final moments together are all about this concept. That as long as they find each other in every life, they’ll be happy with the lives they choose. I don’t know about you, but that seems even more romantic than them getting together.
It’s Downright Gorgeous To Watch
While there’s no denying Greta Lee’s nuanced performance carries the emotional arc of the movie alongside Teo Yoo, Past Lives also deserves high praise for how beautiful the movie was. I may not be a cinematography expert, but it doesn’t take long to recognize that every single shot, no matter how simplistic, was painstakingly planned by director Celine Song and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner.
There were moments when I forgot to read the subtitles because I was so captivated by the images on screen. Of course, my favorite has to be towards the end when Nora and Hae Sung’s walk back to her apartment mirrors the same walk they took as kids, only to cut back to them as those kids as they talk about “in yun.”
Lately, everyone has been shouting about how Barbie was snubbed at the Oscars, but after watching Past Lives, we should be talking about how the Academy clearly doesn’t understand how special this movie is. Sure, it’s up for Best Picture (joining an exclusive club of movies in a foreign language to be nominated for the honor) and Best Original Screenplay, but this romantic drama deserves praise all around, and I’ll never forgive them for failing to recognize Song, Lee and Kirchner’s contributions.
A24’s movies have always managed to move me in a way no one else can, but there’s something truly special about Past Lives. I’m sorry, Lady Bird, but you’ve definitely been dethroned as my favorite.
If you’re like me and missed out on the Past Lives hype the first time around or just really want to watch the movie again, you’re in luck. The movie will become available for Paramount+ subscribers to stream on February 2nd. Until then, you can digitally rent the movie on most VOD platforms. And don’t forget to check out the 2024 movie release schedule, so don’t end up missing out on some great movies.