Table of Contents Hide
Sundance buzz can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can get an indie a sweet acquisition deal, critical praise, and even Oscar talk. On the other hand, “Sundance buzz” can backfire, serving as a short-hand for pretentious, navel-gazing drama that can’t thrive out of Park City.
Past Lives was one of the most talked-about titles out of Sundance 2023, but it was not made available to critics covering remotely. So, for months, we heard all about this tale of two long-lost lovers reconnecting, but were left to wonder if the film’s charm could survive outside of Sundance’s rarified atmosphere. With the film now coming to theaters, I’m thrilled to report the Sundance accolades were, in fact, well-deserved. Beyond being a touching tale of love and loss, Past Lives avoids the buzz backlash by being sharply funny and refusing to play by rom-dram rules.
10 best movies out of Sundance that you need to know about
In an electrifyingly alive debut feature, writer/director Celine Song delivers the kind of movie you don’t just nestle into but long to revisit. And yes, it’s likely one of the very best films of 2023.
Past Lives centers on a childhood sweethearts reconnecting as adults.
Sometimes our lives brush against the rattling texture of what could have been — and by extension, who we might have been. Maybe it was an ambition abandoned, a road not taken, a phone call not returned. Past Lives focuses on two people who feel the itch of this moment and wonder if there’s still time to scratch it.
24 years ago in Seoul, South Korea, a headstrong girl and a meek boy fell in sweet, simple love. Their first date involved frolicking in the rain and holding hands, but their romance was cut short when her family emigrated. In the age of the internet, however, nothing is truly lost. So, 20 years later, Nora (Greta Lee), an aspiring playwright in Manhattan, and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), an engineering student in Seoul, reconnect through social media and Zoom.
Where ’90s movies like The Truth About Cats & Dogs wrung sexual tension out of long phone calls, Past Lives finds surprising heat in video calls that aren’t overtly flirtatious. In a delicately crafted montage, Song shows how the intimacy between these two blossoms, despite time zones and wildly different lives. But the heart of the movie comes four years after the pair has fallen back out of touch.
Nearly a quarter of a century since their childhood date, Nora and Hae Sung reunite in person when he comes to visit New York City. But it’s not so simple to rekindle with his old flame. For one thing, she’s married to Arthur (John Magaro), a writer who utterly adores her. For another, the girl in his mind and memory is not the woman who stands before him.
Past Lives is not the movie you might expect from its setup — and that’s a good thing.
Song smartly subverts audience expectation of romantic dramas. What keeps her lovers apart is not some great evil or cruel fate, but the banality of life and all-too-common cowardice.
After decades apart, when these two sweethearts face each other in person, it is not a climactic celebration with passionate kisses. Instead, awkwardness is a barrier they must pull down slowly, navigating who is before them versus who they’d become in each other’s heads.
After their first day-long hang, Nora pours out her rambling thoughts on all this to her husband, who wobbles in between his urge to be a supportive listener and his panging jealousy. In an agonizingly self-aware moment, Arthur says to his wife, “In this story, I would be the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.” In Past Lives, he’s far from a villain, but he’s also not quite convincing as Nora’s one and only.
Arthur is a devoted partner who is close with her family, interested in her work, and is learning Korean so he can understand the language she dreams in. Yet he worries the compromises of their life together means theirs is not a romantic enough story to withstand the dashing, preppy beau who’s flown across the world to see another man’s wife. This leads to some of the movie’s funniest — and most anxiety-inducing — moments.
Past Lives is radiantly funny.
Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography is gorgeous, frequently framing our heroes in picturesque settings without having them overwhelmed by the spectacle of New York or Seoul. The distance between them in the frame is significant, speaking to all the years and words and wishes that have built up there. In the space between them is Arthur as he acts as a third wheel on the pair’s final excursion before Hae Sung’s return flight.
Between these two elegant Asian people — who, strangers speculate aloud, seem like a couple — there mopes along a bearded Jewish man, rumpled in the way of New York City sophisticates. He seems both a step behind and achingly out of place. Is this foreshadowing? Is he reflecting a moment or a possibility?
Where Hae Sung is a serious scientist with a stern brow, Nora is a free-spirited artist with a flashing smile. She gets most of the movie’s punchlines, as humor is her way of deflecting negative emotions, like fear of rejection or disappointment. Lee is transcendent in this role, making Nora unfairly easy to fall for. She’s witty and rascally, pushing boundaries with her quips and unguarded observations, like “He’s really masculine in a way that’s just — I think — so Korean.”
Lee has chemistry with both of her onscreen beaus, keeping the tension in this love triangle taut and enticing. In a less interesting version of this movie, the childhood sweethearts would be kept apart by impossible obstacles yet would push relentlessly to be together, even it means breaking the heart of the fool who comes between them. But Song’s story is more true to life in that there is no clear-cut path to happiness.
Love is complicated and evolving. And as Nora introduces the Korean concept of “In-Yun” — a kind of fate tied to relationships across reincarnations — Past Lives suggests that no matter how their story ends here, it’s not the end. This spiritual element proves surprisingly profound, considering it’s initially uttered as a naked ploy of seduction. (It works not only on Arthur but on the audience as well. Lee’s eyebrow waggle is not to be denied!)
Believe the hype: Past Lives is extraordinary.
Rejecting romantic archetypes, rebuffing cliches, and reveling in the natural charms of Greta Lee, Past Lives is a film about love and life that is as rapturous as it is unpredictable. Song delicately plots a three-part story of youthful dreamers, hustling twenty-somethings, and musing thirty-somethings to create a romance that is more than the sum of its parts — even though its parts are quite beguiling. Her trio of loves are compelling in their contrasts, inviting audiences to speculate on who they are to each other and who they might be. Dialogue that is vibrantly philosophical, comfortingly funny, and occasionally poetically heart-breaking feels exhilarating authentic to its New York City setting, as if everyone is forced to speak the language of Nora’s chosen home. All of these splendors of sight and sound, emotion, intellect, and spirit culminate into a cinematic experience that reflects its third act: a long, wondrous walk through a city where dreams come true and are dashed every day.
Dare you join the journey?
Past Lives opens in theaters in limited release June 2 and expands nationwide June 23.