Sundance review: Past Lives is already one of the year’s best films

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Near the beginning of Celine Song’s brilliant debut film Past Lives, two little Korean girls are choosing their English names as part of the family preparation for immigration to Canada. Na Young, age 12, can’t quite settle on one; they all sound ridiculous to her. But then her father suggests “Lenore,” Nora for short, and she likes the sound of that. She’ll be Nora. In this new place, she’ll be someone new.

But she is leaving someone behind: Hae Sung, her closest friend, perhaps an innocent sweetheart. They compete for grades and walk home from school together, and when she leaves he’s quietly devastated. The future, for him, has changed shape.

Past Lives is a miraculous little film from A24, steady and slow and haunted, in the existential sense, by possibilities. Every life choice is an opening of a door into the future — but going through one door means choosing not to enter another, a fact we rarely grasp when we’re young. The older we get, the more the unopened doors shimmer in memory, ghostly reminders of the lives we might have led. The people we might have been. The people we might have been with.

While everyone feels wistful about that glance backward — and movies have long probed it, up to and including Everything Everywhere All at Once — Song crafts those emotions into something simple and stunning by twining them together with the Korean concept of inyeon, which Nora describes as related to fate. Who we are today is dependent on the chain of past lives we’ve led, and our connection to one another is a product of those lives as well. The people with whom we find ourselves entangled — friends, partners, loves — are all part of it. Who we are to one another in this life will have some bearing on the next.

That entanglement is key to the story, which jumps forward in great increments, 12 years at a time in which not much changes but somehow everything is different. Nora (played as an adult by Greta Lee, in a terrific dramatic role) grows up, emigrates from Toronto to New York, and becomes a playwright. Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) serves his compulsory military duty and thinks often of his childhood friend. Eventually, with the help of the internet, they locate one another and strike up a friendship over Skype.

A lesser movie might have ended there, turning into a lovely romantic comedy. But in real life, time keeps passing. Past Lives evolves with its characters into their 30s, when the shape of their paths starts to be defined. When Nora and Hae Sung reconnect again — this time with the addition of Nora’s writer husband Arthur (John Magaro) — those shadowy doors from the past they didn’t even realize they were shutting start to shimmer.

It sounds trite and melodramatic, so please do not mistake me: At every pass, Past Lives chooses understatement. Nora and Hae Sung and Arthur are vibrantly aware that they’re living inside the template of a familiar story — the kind where childhood sweethearts connect, but an obstacle is in their way — except that they don’t feel like they’re storybook characters, and they don’t act like them, either. Instead, they talk about work and life and one another with frankness and affection, with understanding and reason. It’s a relief, and elevates Past Lives to something very near perfection, crafted with attention to the moment.

It’s hard to imagine Past Lives not being one of 2023’s most talked-about films, and it richly deserves the honor. Its title comes from a concept within reincarnation, but there’s something else to it, something bound to resonate in a time of uncertainty. Song has crafted a film in which people mostly talk (her background in theater is evident), but it is also sprinkled with silences and unfilled spaces and absences; what’s not there is as important as what is.

So it’s unbearably wistful, landing its story with a gentle kindness that somehow turns the bittersweet into something beautiful. If our lives are not filled with infinite possibilities, the ones with which we find ourselves entangled — at least in this life — are to be counted as gifts. All we can do, all we can hope for, is to be a bit of grace for as long as we have one another.

Past Lives will be distributed by A24 later this year.

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