film review
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‘Past Lives’: The most beautiful film of the year is not all that

After making its way through festivals, playwright Celine Song’s directorial debut will surely be among the Oscar nominees in a few months

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee, in 'Past Lives.'
Teo Yoo and Greta Lee, in 'Past Lives.'
Javier Ocaña

Past Lives has all the ingredients to make it the most beautiful film of the year, and this is what many viewers around the world and the vast majority of national and international critics are experiencing. It is a story about a love that lay dormant from childhood until being reawakened in early adulthood. Although thousands of miles apart, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora (Greta Lee) keep in touch as friends via occasional video chats and meet up after their lives have taken them in different directions. The friends ponder what might have been and whether they are finally able to have one last opportunity for love. The spiritual backdrop that is so fashionable among the “cool people,” rooted in a religion of a foreign land, lends the film a particular exoticism. The movie is staged with a certain style in keeping with the fashion for all things Korean, which has swept the audiovisual world. The movie marks the debut of a young director of Korean origin in collaboration with the fashionable production company A24. The entertainment company is the creator of some of the most unique films of recent years and is still celebrating last year’s triumph of Everything Everywhere All at Once at the Oscars.

To this critic, however, it seems that Past Lives does not contribute much more to love, cinema, and spirituality than a luxurious Sunday article in an elegant magazine offers to sophistication. It is a moment of passing leisure, luminous in appearance but without too much depth, which can easily be glimpsed. It is a decent and pleasant debut by filmmaker Celine Song, who, like Nora, was born in Korea, migrated to Canada with her parents, and ended up in the United States. She then forged herself artistically as a playwright, and has laid down a solid base for her autobiographical work, both in its feelings about love and in the literality of the triangular quote with which the story opens and closes. But in no way is this the great movie that is being talked about and will continue to be talked about.

Maybe it has to do with the way of keeping feelings under control that is so Asian, and that is so difficult for Latin and Mediterranean people to understand. But everything related to the embrace of love, tenderness, affection, and sensuality can be invisible (and even exasperating) to some viewers throughout the movie’s three acts. The sequences with the girl and the boy in childhood hardly show any special involvement; even less memorable actions in any sense, except the cold farewell at the fork in the road of their lives. The somewhat tiresome (and visually ugly) scenes of them during their youthful long-distance cyber relationship also do not offer dialogue of any great dramatic weight. And only the last stretch hits certain levels of emotion and provides two deep conversations. Of course, it always comes at the cost of the iron-clad emotional shells inhabited by each of the lovers, who never demonstrate their love beyond their thoughts.

Various shots with a lot of space at the top and the characters hidden in the lower part of the frame reveal Song’s taste in accompanying the inner thoughts of the characters with their staging. Their discourse on identity, emigration, and how a way of being is forged culturally and socially in a foreign territory has interesting notes. And the work with light is beautiful.

After making its way through festivals, Past Lives will surely be among the Oscar nominees in a few months, and will continue its sentimental journey through the world’s cinemas. It has been forged with the dramatic, sentimental, spiritual, and visual materials that triumph every day in the media. Like in-yeon, the Buddhist concept that forms the basis of this story, the idea that those who connect spiritually with each other are destined to meet again. These are materials that are much more apparent than deep.

Past Lives

Director: Celine Song.

Cast: Greta Lee, Yoo Teo, John Magaro, Moon Seung-ha. 

Genre: Drama. USA, 2023.

Duration: 105 minutes.

Premiere: June 2.


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