Film Review: Past Lives – 8/10

‘You dream in a language I can’t understand…’

Longing and nostalgia. Nostalgia and longing. It’s one hell of a drug. I’m afraid, dear reader, that you’ll have to indulge me as I repeat that one Hemingway quote that I return to every so often:

“We can’t ever go back to old things or try and get the “old kick” out of something or find things the way we remembered them. We have them as we remember them and they are fine and wonderful and we have to go on and have other things because the old things are nowhere except in our minds now.”

While Hem is, of course, absolutely right in everything he says above, it doesn’t stop the tortured longing for the past being suffocating at times. Regular readers of this blog (God bless you) will know that I am obsessed with the past. My Ebay purchase history is an absolute mess. Well, Past Lives explores the themes of memory and identity through the lens of a couple of old friends reuniting somewhere far away from home…

We open in a Manhattan bar with Nora (Greta Lee) and Teo Yoo (Hae Sung) utterly absorbed in each other while Nora’s husband Arthur (John Magaro) watches on helplessly. We eventually return to this moment but not before witnessing Nora and Teo Yoo’s childhood in Korea before Nora (then called Si Young) is forced to emigrate with her family at age 12. The title refers to the idea that our two protagonists may have met before in a previous life. It’s never made explicit that this is a romantic relationship, in many ways it’s deeper than that. To Nora, Teo Yoo represents the culture and the country that she left behind. When she breaks down and weeps at the film’s bittersweet conclusion, she weeps for everything she was and everything she can’t be again. For roads not taken. For opportunities missed. But also with joy for the life she has carved out for herself. This girl that used to be such a crybaby as a child – all grown up in the big city.

Past Lives is an unlikely Oscar contender, and it’s got absolutely no chance of winning Best Picture, but it’s heartening to see the Academy coming out for such an intimate, personal film. Writer-director Celine Song’s screenplay is truly exquisite and both of her leads deliver nuanced and honest performances and Past Lives is the kind of film that gets under your skin and stays there for weeks.

I never cared for either Lost in Translation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (a film that is namechecked here) and while this film shares more than a little DNA with those two cult classics, Past Lives is the superior work. A loving, heartfelt tribute that tackles big emotions in a way that is both heartbreaking and poignant,