Thursday, June 15, 2023

Past Lives - Movie Review

The Movie: Past Lives

The Director: Celine Song

The Cast: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Moon Seung-ah, Leem Seung-min

The Story: Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, are wrest apart after Nora's family emigrates from South Korea. 20 years later, they are reunited for one fateful week as they confront notions of love and destiny.

The Review:
This is Celine Song's first feature film as a director and as a writer. What the heck. This movie is so good. I really shouldn't be surprised when a director seemingly comes out of nowhere with a debut effort that blows everyone away, it happens more often than you might think and there is always a backstory to that person's career that, if uncovered, will show countless hours of work behind the scenes and on projects they never receive any recognition for. At least on IMDB, it shows that Song was a writer for The Wheen of Time TV series so there is a little something there to look at.

The tone of the film is very quiet, very honest, and very authentic and all of that is put together in a way that really makes you think about your own life and the decisions and choices you have made along the way. Did we miss out on opportunities or what might have happened if we went up the stairs instead of down. Song lays out a beautifully written story that addresses this topic in a way that stirs your emotions yet still leaves you inspired about life because, no matter what our past contained, we are still free to make new choices moving forward.

Complementing Song's work behind the camera are two amazing performances from Greta Lee and Teo Yoo as Nora and Hae Sung respectively. They each seem to completely understand how to pull the material off the scripted page and turn it into something even more emotionally powerful on screen. The subtleties in their performances are what really drew me in, the little glances back and forth, changes in posture, the way words are spoken. I felt like I was right there in those moments experiencing all of it and not just watching as a bystander.

By the time the final climactic moment hit, I was just so engaged and involved, it was hard not to get wrapped up in all of the emotions. While not exactly the same type of movie, my brain had immediate comparisons to Richard Linklater's Before trilogy as well as Emily Ting's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong. What separates this movie is how Song dives all the way into the Korean history and culture through Yoo's character and how it's juxtaposed against Lee and her character's very American lifestyle. You can see how each is fascinated by the other while also realizing just how much of a divide there is compared to when they were kids.

With both the characters' home town in South Korea and present day New York City serving as backdrops throughout the film, Song is able to add so much texture to the story and every scene gives you such a real sense of place and belonging. I think the scenes where Nora and Hae Sung are walking through the streets and parks of the city are where she is at her best as whatever happens to be in frame at the time seems to become part of the story and enhances the conversations being had. I'm not sure if we will see a more textured and nuanced film as this one is over the course of the year's offerings. This is truly great work from everyone involved.

There is also a lot to be said here about representation and how Song has created two fully realized and completely authentic human beings who are Korean from top to bottom. It's pretty clear that the actors were able to really dive into this opportunity to fully explore what was possible and I think that's really where a lot of this movie's heart and soul come from. We don't normally get to see an American movie explore Asian characters in this type of way, the first that comes to mind is Lulu Wang's The Farewell although even that movie spent most of it's time in China with Chinese characters. Either way, both movies are great examples of what's possible within the space of authentic representation and I'm here for all of it.

The Verdict:
Past Lives is one of the best movies, and one of my favorite movies, of the year. Period. Go watch it.

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