SFF 2023: ‘Past Lives’ — absence, connection and a different kind of love story

This review is part of Tharunka’s continued coverage of the 70th Sydney Film Festival. Read the rest of the reviews here.  

Past Lives opens with a slow zoom approaching a trio in a New York bar, as unseen strangers discuss among themselves: what relationships exist between these people? Who are they to each other? Are they friends or tourists? Which pairing of them are lovers, if at all? We don’t know the answer yet — and when resolution comes, it’s hard to truly classify it into anything at all. 

On its first level, Past Lives follows Nora (Greta Lee), a Korean-Canadian-American woman across decades of her life as she diverges from and reconnects with her childhood love, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). Initially across Skype calls and Facebook friend requests that firmly roots the film as a love story in a digital age, time, distance and and absence inform Song’s deftly-crafted characters in both how their present selves form, and how they perceive their former selves. When Hae Sung visits Nora in New York, twenty-four years after she left Korea, the fact that she’s a playwright, has a husband and a life so completely divergent — unearths a complexly tender, achingly stunning narrative with rare levels of emotional maturity.

Anchored by nuanced and impeccably watertight performances, Song’s film walks a tightrope between vulnerability and restraint that her characters’ emotional worlds exist within. Greta Lee’s portrayal of Nora is at once self-assured, pointed and gentle, and Teo Yoo imbues Hae Sung with a charismatic, controlled yet raw quality. Rounding out the trio is John Magaro as Arthur, Nora’s husband, who brings unexpected tenderness, complexity and likability to a role that perhaps involves the film’s trickiest balancing act.

The screenplay feels lived-in and delicately, achingly beautiful — yet not without a hint of self-reflexive wit that ever-so-slightly winks at the trappings a less accomplished film might fall into. The pace and cinematography of the film concerns a meditative ebb and flow in space and time, rarely lingering but never feeling rushed. Song’s New York feels vibrant and alive. It all pulls together as flickering, roaring, simmering, sparking emotions that feel no need to telegraph themselves – simply presenting themselves as they are in the mundanities of life to visceral effect, a contemplative exploration of love in modern life.

To call it a love story, however, feels reductive. Past Lives is thematically anchored in the Korean concept of inyun – less of an active manifestation of destiny than it is a recognition of layers and layers of connections; a brush against a shoulder, a bird on a leaf in a past life, what one person is to another. If not this life, then the next – the right places, at the right time.

Arthur is learning Korean – he tells Nora it’s to understand her as she sleep talks, isolated from a world he cannot understand, emblematic of a past life. He later uses it to attempt to communicate with Hae Sung, who, in turn, tries his best to reach out in English. Nora, able to speak both, serves as a mediator, her worlds with each of them representing her present and past she reconciles. Song weaves cultural and language differences into this narrative of growth in a way that feels as though there’s no other way to possibly tell it. Its deliberateness is never heavy-handed – even in its Skype sequences, the film understands the digital spaces so much of its thematic core aims to attach itself too – the distance of a video call magnified by blocky static and audio glitches, a search for traces of somebody that used to exist as you remember them. The what-if is not just for a person, but the potential of another diverging life, had Nora and her family remained in Korea – warped by screens and distance, dissecting possibilities. 

Nora and Arthur have layers of in-yun. So do Hae Sung and Nora, and Arthur and Hae Sung. Instead of yearning for conventionality, or a tale of a lost love, Past Lives opts for the more fascinating alternative: where Nora and Hae Sung represent to each other what could have been, former selves, past lives both characters have grown and changed from, allowing for bittersweet reminiscence, grief and acceptance. 

We return to that opening scene with Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur in the bar – this time, privy to their own discussion, where we find out it’s not so dissimilar to what their gossiping onlookers and murmuring amongst themselves. Who are they all, to each other? Past Lives allows us to contemplate that; examine the links that form in a life that takes the shape of rhythms of distance and connection, absence and presence, memory and ambition. The end result is a poignant, skillfully-rendered portrait of loving and bidding goodbye to the person you once were.  

Editor: Nicole Cadelina