The Korea Herald


[Herald Review] ‘Past Lives’: First love and its many ‘what ifs’

By Kim Da-sol

Published : March 2, 2024 - 15:59

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Yoo Teo (left) and Greta Lee star in “Past Lives,” directed by Celine Song. (CJ ENM) Yoo Teo (left) and Greta Lee star in “Past Lives,” directed by Celine Song. (CJ ENM)

It is not unheard of for people to imagine what would happen if a childhood sweetheart showed up after years apart. This is the story that unfolds on screen in Korean Canadian director Celine Song’s directorial debut romance film “Past Lives.”

The film, which received 75 awards and over 200 nominations at film festivals around the world, including best director and screenplay nominations at the Academy Awards, revolves around the story first love, admittedly something of a cliche. What differentiates it from other similar movies is director Song’s simple yet in-depth portrayal of human relationships.

The movie begins with young Na-young and Hae-sung and shows how they depend on each other despite their young age of 12. One day, Na-young suddenly emigrates to Canada with her family, telling Hae-sung that she wants to go there to win the Nobel Prize.

Twelve years later, Na-young, an aspiring writer living in New York who goes by the name Norah, finds Hae-sung’s social media account and messages him. Their relationship continues via countless Skype calls and emails but still within the boundaries of a friendship. The bond between the two struggles to find solid ground not only because of the distance between them but also because they’re still clumsy and childlike with each other.

Another 12 years pass by. Hae-sung, in a bold last move, flies to New York to see Na-young, who is now married to Arthur whom she met at an artists’ residency program.

The two childhood friends meet and sit next to each other, reminiscing and thinking about what would have happened if Na-young hadn’t left Korea, if Hae-sung had visited Na-young earlier and if they’d gotten married to each other.

“Past Lives” (CJ ENM) “Past Lives” (CJ ENM)

Actors Yoo Teo and Greta Lee’s portrayal of the characters’ arcs is so well-nuanced, allowing the audience to easily fall into the story and be reminded of their own pasts and all the missed chances in relationships. The movie leaves viewers asking the question, "What if?"

Despite the whirlwind of emotions, the characters' expressions are calm, making it all the more heartbreaking for the audience to watch their pain.

Na-young and Hae-sung explain the Korean term “inyeon,” meaning providence or fate, specifically its relevance to the relationships between people. This concept connects audiences from around the world in imagining that, if things had been different, Na-young and Hae-sung may have reunited, based on the belief that people who are meant to be will be even if they are thousands of miles apart.