Past Lives (2024.7, Simple, Love)

Past LIves tells the story of three characters in a whirlwind of fond memories, painful regrets, and doubts of self-worth. A simple and tightly emotional story, but not one you will long remember (3.5*)
Past Lives
Past LIves

Past Lives – Snapshot

Past Lives tells the story of three characters caught in a whirlwind of fond memories, painful regrets, and doubts of self-worth.  It is all framed in a tightly emotional story simply told.  But, in the end, will you remember it – does it matter? (3.5*) 

Where to Watch:

Stream: Paramount+

Rent/Buy:  Fandango ($4) Prime/Apple/Google ($5)

Past Lives – The Oscar Buzz 

Oscar Nominations (2) / Oscar Wins (0) :

Best Picture

Original Screenplay (Celine Song)

Past Lives earned an Original Screenplay nomination for Celine Strong who was also the director – this is her film.  Strong, much like her main character, Na Young/Nora, was born in 1988 in South Korea, migrated to Toronto, Canada with her family when young, and then moved to New York City to pursue a career in the theater.  She has written several scripts for theater productions as well as some TV writing, but Past Lives is her first feature film script as well as first time directing.  To achieve an Oscar nomination on the first try is impressive indeed.  Her writing is precise and to-the-point – the film is tightly woven with no wasted space.  And her direction, probably because the movie is so autobiographical, is confident and well-placed.  Since this is her first movie, I can’t say that I’ve seen any of her previous work, but if she manages to find themes that fit within her own experience, she may well be someone we hear from again.

Her whole team seems to be relatively young and/or new to making films.  The soundtrack, supporting the subtle emotions of the film, is by two members of the band Grizzly Bear (Christopher Bear and Daniel Rosen), and have been writing scores since only about 2010.  Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner – who uses the camera very well in capturing the complicated facial emotions of the three key players – also worked his first movie in 2010.  Editor Keith Fraser started a little earlier in 2006, but hasn’t done anything I’ve seen.  In short, this is an up and coming team and it will be interesting to see where they go.  But it also means I don’t have any related movies that might connect to this one.

That it received a Best Picture nomination based only on its single screenplay nomination is a little unusual but it has happened before.  Sometimes a strong script is enough to power a successful movie. But, for example, this year’s May December received the same screenplay nomination, but did not get a Best Picture nod.  All five of the Adapted Screenplay nominees were also Best Picture nominees, but they also had multiple other nominations, so awarding Past Lives with a Best Picture nomination is a little unusual.  Overall, the film scores a 5 on my Oscar Quality Index placing it tenth out of all twenty-four general interest movies.

Past Lives – Related Movies

The Quiet Girl (for tone and emotional content)

Past Lives – What Others Think

Audience reaction to Past Lives seems to depend on what they were expecting, but overall viewers placed this movie ninth out of all 24 general interest films.  Those who liked it commented about it being subtle, full of emotion and simple.  Others failed to appreciate the emotion and found it “flat” and “slow”.

Critics, on the other hand, knocked this film out of the ball park, placing it number one of all 38 of this year’s movies.  Manohla Dargis (chief film critic of the New York Times) gave it a Critics Pick, lauded the cinematography, and the emotional strength  of the characters.  She wrote “the movie’s modesty – its intimacy, human scale, humble locations and lack of visual oomph – is one of its strengths.”  Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert) found “It’s a minor film in its scope and structure, and yet it feels so very major,” and wrote “It has that startling balance of the specific and the universal.”  And his colleague Monica Castillo wrote in her four star (out of four) review “Its the kind of nuanced movie that allows for self-reflection as well as entertainment, following two characters who illustrate how relationships – both fully realized and not – influence our lives.”  She called filmmaker Song’s feature debut “a masterclass in storytelling.”  

Past Lives is all of that – a concise and balanced display of relationship emotion.  And I will have more to say on that in the last section.

Past Lives – Special Mention

Inyeon – is a Korean word that is invoked several times in Past Lives.  It doesn’t have any direct translation in English, primarily because its precise meaning seems to be context driven. From “Inyeon can be understood as a deep, almost predestined connection or affinity between two individuals that transcends mere coincidence or superficial interactions.  It suggests a spiritual or cosmic bond that draws two people together, often with a sense of inevitability or fate.”  That meaning is reinforced when Arthur and Hae Sung have a rather difficult conversation together at the bar in the closing moments of the movie.

But it is used a little differently by Nora and Hae Sung in describing their own relationship.  They talk about marriage implying a past history, and past lives, involving some 8,000 contacts over the eternity of lives and times.  That would suggest a completely different level than just “deep” or “fate”.  But the concept may be integral to understanding the movie’s intent. It may well intend a reference to the Buddhist notion of reincarnation.

Interestingly, Buddhism may have reached Korea as early as 372 C.E. Which would suggest a long history and strong influence.  But,according to Gallup Korea in 2021, only 15% of South Koreans profess a belief in Buddhism.  Another 26% ascribe to Christian denominations while half the population say they have no religion whatsoever.  So it is a little unclear whether the Inyeon belief in contemporary South Korea is based on literal reincarnations or on something more like “fate”.

Moving On – A critical element in Past Lives is the emigration of one of our main characters, Na Young/Nora,  at a very young age from Korea to Toronto and, ultimately, New York City.  The impact of this separation is huge on both of them.  Na Young becomes highly westernized, even changing her name to Nora, while Hae Sung retains his Korean culture.  The implication, in the film, is that this separation is highly significant with Hae Sung very much wanting things to return to the way they were and Nora realizing that she retains strong feelings for a past that she knows she can’t return to.

Personally, I found the impact to be overstated and even exaggerated.  But, then, my own personal history has had so many big changes that maybe I’ve become inured to the impacts.  I’ve never moved as dramatically as going from Korea to Canada.  Nevertheless, I’ve lived at more than two dozen different mailing addresses in the states of Wyoming, California, Colorado, Minnesota, North Carolina, New York, Connecticut, and New Mexico which represents a significant cross section of this country.   Each move involved the complete termination of some relationships and the need to reestablish new ones. Of course, I’m twice as old as  Nora and Hae Sung, but even by their age I had lived in six of those states.  In short, I found it somewhat strange that Hae Sung, after all those years, had been unable to let go of his image of Na Young and that Nora found it so memorable.  People, in my experience, move on and, as kind of the opposite of Inyeon, you can never really return home.

It may be true, however, that my experience is highly unusual.  According to the New York Times, the typical adult in 2015 lives only 18 miles from their mother.  And another source tells me that 72% of Americans still live in the same town they grew up in.  So maybe my own ability to reestablish roots and terminate unsatisfying relationships might make me the odd man out on this movie.  (I found it interesting that the critics who found this movie so outstanding are either oldsters who have remained in the same town in which they were raised – Manohla Dargis for example was raised on the Lower East Side, where the movie is set – or young enough that they haven’t had the experience of moving around.  Furthermore, with modern communication technologies, like cellphones and Skyping, maybe it isn’t as necessary to move where the opportunities are any more.  Maybe major change to one’s location just isn’t happening like it used to as in my day!)

Past Lives – Michael’s Moments

Past Lives is a compact film with a warm, laser-like focus on the intimate emotional connections between two Koreans (Na Young and Hae Sung) who develop feelings for each other at an early age and are then separated when Na Young’s family moves to Canada.  Na Young westernizes, changes her name to Nora, and, eventually moves to New York City to write plays.  Hae Sung remains in Korea, serves his military duty, and studies engineering.  After twelve years, using the communication wonders of the internet, he searches for her, and, coincidentally, she finds he’s been looking for her and they reconnect.  Then, after another decade, they actually reunite in person.

The film’s strengths are in the script, which was Oscar-nominated and is based on the filmmaker Celine Strong’s personal story,  as well as in the intense expressions managed by the three main actors.  The apparent fact that the two actors had never met before their scenes together were filmed meant that their encounter naturally reflected two people trying to communicate when their characters had been separated for so long.  It was a terrific idea on Strong’s part that helped intensify the conflicts generated by the separation in the story.

The movie reminded me in many ways of the simple but effective story in what I thought was last year’s best movie, The Quiet Girl.  There are similarities in the usage of the camera and in the way so much is captured in the looks and body language of the actors.  They are also both remarkably effective because of the sleek lines of the story with few entanglements.  It is also a wonderful comparison in the powers of love.

Past Lives, though, throws us an additional level of complexity by introducing a third character, Nora’s husband Arthur.  And, in some ways, that might also be the reason I didn’t like this film as much.  For reasons I made clear in the Special Mention section about my own migration patterns, I had a hard time understanding Hae Sung’s inability to move on, especially after nearly two decades.  To me it makes for an interesting, but rather unbelievable story.  Nora’s adaptations to change seemed realistic, and I enjoyed her own fascination with the feelings raised by her encounters with Hae Sung.  

But it was Arthur’s role, as Nora’s husband and the third wheel at the bar scene on their last night together with Hae Sung, that I found most interesting and, unfortunately, undeveloped.  How does it feel to not understand a word of what your wife and her childhood sweetheart are saying?  The movie made some attempts to explore that, but, I think that could have been the central focus, and the basis, perhaps of an even better movie.

In the end, I just don’t really get why this film received such rave critical reviews.  Yes, it is tightly constructed and packs a lot of emotion into its short frame, but ultimately I sort of had to suggest that everyone just grow-up and get over it – life moves on and harboring unchanging feelings over two decades is not healthy.  The emotions in the film were evident, but misplaced.  (Oh, and the 8,000 past lives was neither necessary nor sufficient! – people live with and without memories throughout history!). (3.5*)

Past Lives
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