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"Past Lives": A Movie Review

Updated: Jan 27


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

Starring: Greta Lee

Teo Yoo

John Magaro

Directed by:  Celine Song

Written by:  Celine Song

BEN'S REVIEW:  Watching the trailer for this movie, I wondered if I was going to see something about polyamory. From that preview it looked like our heroin, Na Young, is in a relationship with a guy man when an old lover shows up in her life, and she's given permission to be with him. That's what the preview looked like tp me.


Then interestingly enough, the film opens with two people talking about the three of them, who are sitting across the bar. They are wondering about their relationship. It must be a game they play. They've decided that this one is going to be hard to figure out.....

We then flashback twenty-five years earlier to find Na Young as a child. Her family is immigrating to the and they are telling her she needs to pick a new name. She chooses Nora Moon. She really likes her friend Hae Sung, but by moving and the two of them will unable to be together. She thinks they're going to get married one day. But after her family moves, what chance is there of that?


We then began to skip through their lives. Their past lives. Twelve years is the first jump, and where the two of them reconnect via the Internet. Through a wonderful collage of scenes, we see them falling in love before our eyes and it's very believable. Very moving.




Na Young comes to see that she and Hae Sung can’t really have a life together. Their lives are committed in different directions. And thinking about each other constantly all the time, having this impossible relationship via the Internet, is distracting her from that. It could be a long time before either they can actually be together. And since they can’t be physically be together, she wants to end their online relationship, it that is what it is, at least for now.


And then Na Young, Nora Moon, meets someone else and falls in love.


I was struck then with how I wish the director/writer Celine Song had let us see her fall in love with this man, Arthur. We see it, so convincingly with Na Young and Hae Sung, and it was done beautifully in such a small part of the movie. It could have seen it just as easily with Na Young/Nora and Arthur.




Because of course Na Young and Hae Sung are reunited. And...POW...the connection is just as fast and just as real. When she tells her Arthur about her time with Hae Sung, he is amazingly understanding. I loved it. He tells her that he's not going to stand on her way of seeing Hae Sung.


He's your childhood sweetheart. It's not like you're going to run away with him. Are you?" She assures him she's not, he tells her something that surprised me. And what he says explained Maybe why the director/writer Celine Song chose not to show us Nora and Arthur falling in love.


Arthur says, that in comparison, their relationship is boring compared to the one she has with Hae Sung. "We met at an artists' residency. Slept together because we both happen to be single. We realized we both live in New York, so, we moved in together to save money on rent. We got married so you could get a green card. So...." Boring. just as I thought I was reaching this point where I wondered if this was just a boring movie, they have a discussion. About love. Life. Fear. Destiny. Cultural differences. It's powerful. Very human. I was deeply moved.


And is the beginning of where I saw what I believed is the reason this movie is called PAST LIVES. It isn’t simply us seeing Nora’s... Na Young’s...past lives with Hae Sung, but also the concepts of lives they (we) never lived. Possible lives. The many different lives they might have had, had they made different choices. 

Na Young and Hae Sung have a day before he must return home to Korea. They spend a day together and then Na Young/Nora (we again and again are shown that in many ways she is two different people) takes Hae Sung home to meet her husband. The tension can be cut like a knife, the acting simply stunning. As the three of them spend time together we are returned to the bar from which we started at the start of the film, and another conversation begins that shows me why this movie was nominated for best picture. Na Young and Hae Sung have a conversation about relationships. Relationships that are, were, that aren't, that could have been, and even past lives in different worlds and different times where they may or may not have been together.


And it was here that I was brought to tears. Na Young and Hae Sung come to see that they have the lives that they have, they are where they are, and that's it. And personally, the message I go was...what's the use in wasting time thinking overly of what might have been? I know that now, feeling as mortal as I have been lately, and sometimes wondering why I'm not living a totally different life...maybe the exciting life of a director or screen writer or both in Hollywood or New York, rubbing shoulders with the famous, instead living in midtown Kansas City, Missouri, a retired overweight 63-year-old writing this in my office. Except that this is where life has brought me. And I love my life. And that's good.


Is this what the director was saying in her movie? I don't know. But it certainly what it meant to me.


Hae Sung wonders aloud what their next life might be. Will they be lovers? Nora doesn’t know. And so he goes home to Korea and Nora returns to the arms of the man she has chosen to spend her life with and he holds her as she cries.

Spellbinding stuff those tears. Because Na Young has not cried since she left Korea when she was a child and known to be a crybaby. She explained that she doesn't cry anymore because nobody cares. But now, finally, she is able to return to a vulnerable place, and cry with someone who does care.



Warning: The following is a complete synopsis of the movie. It's nothing but spoilers. Read at your own risk!

In Seoul, South Korea, Na Young and Hae Sung are 12-year-old classmates who develop feelings for one another and go on a date set up by their parents. Shortly thereafter, Na Young's family emigrates to Toronto and the two lose contact. Na Young changes her name to Nora Moon.

Twelve years later, in 2012, Hae Sung has finished his military service and Nora has moved to New York City. One day, Nora discovers on Facebook that Hae Sung had commented on a post that he was looking for Na Young, unaware of her name change. They reconnect through video calls but are unable to visit each other, as Nora plans to attend a writer's retreat in Montauk and Hae Sung is moving to China for a Mandarin language exchange. Eventually, Nora tells Hae Sung they should stop talking for a while, as she wants to focus on her writing and life in New York. At her retreat, Nora meets Arthur Zaturansky and they fall in love. Hae Sung also meets a woman, whom he begins to date.

Twelve more years pass, with Arthur and Nora married and living in New York. Hae Sung, no longer with his girlfriend, goes to meet Nora there. Arthur wonders if he is a roadblock in their own imperfect love story, admitting to Nora that he harbored suspicions that Nora married him to secure a green card for U.S. residency. Nora affirms that she loves Arthur. The following night, the three go out to dinner. Initially, Nora translates each dialogue, but eventually speaks with Hae Sung exclusively in Korean. He wonders what they were to each other in their past lives, and what would have happened if she had never left South Korea and they stayed together. When Nora goes to the bathroom, Hae Sung apologizes to Arthur for speaking alone with Nora, but Arthur says he is glad to have met him.

They return to Arthur and Nora's apartment. Hae Sung invites them to visit him in South Korea and calls for an Uber. Nora waits with him, and the two exchange long, meaningful looks at each other until the Uber arrives. Hae Sung wonders whether they were, at that moment, experiencing a past life, and asks Nora what their relationship will be in their next life. She says she does not know. Hae Sung says, "I'll see you then." He leaves in the car and she walks back to her apartment, crying in Arthur's arms.*





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