Film review: Past Lives (2023)

This film, that has won many awards and was nominated for best film at the latest Academy Awards, will evoke long forgotten memories in viewers who have reached or passed middle age. Who amongst us does not recall past loves from whom we drifted away for a variety of reasons, and now occasionally wonder what our lives might have been like if things had turned out differently and we had stayed together?

This film tells the story of Nora and Hae Sung, childhood sweethearts in Seoul, South Korea who get separated at the age of 12 when Nora’s family emigrates to Canada. She subsequently moves to New York to pursue a career as a writer while he remains behind in Korea to become an engineer. But he still thinks of her and at the age of 24, he reaches out to her through Facebook and they start talking via Skype where they discover that they still feel warmly towards each other. But there is little chance of them meeting in the near future and that brief period of connection also fades and they do not make contact for another twelve years, when they are in their mid-thirties. In the meantime, she attends a writing residency and ends up falling in love and marrying Arthur, a fellow writer she met there, while Hae Sung also gets engaged.

But his relationship begins to flounder and he decides to go to New York for a few days to see Nora, even though he knows she is married. The two meet and struggle to work through their feelings for each other. He clearly regrets that he has ‘lost’ her, though he recognizes that she is happy with a good husband who loves her, and she too feels conflicted about the relationship between the two of them and how it impacts what she has with Arthur. The film is full of awkward silences as the three of them struggle to figure out what to say to one another as they each grapple with internal conflicts and wonder what their destiny is. This requires the actors to convey a wide range of emotions via looks and body language and they manage it well.

This film is not for everyone although I think everyone can relate to its main themes. It is slow moving and has no heroes, no villains, no suspense, no action, no violence, no sex, no nudity. no dramatic plot twists, the devices used by filmmakers to keep the viewer engaged. What is has is a layered treatment of three people trying to understand their emotions and feelings towards each other as the past collides with the present, and negotiating the tricky boundaries of what is appropriate to say and do without hurting the ones they care about.

Here’s the trailer.

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