July 22, 2024

PAST LIVES (KOREAN) (2023) – Looking for love in the wrong place and time

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Rating: ⭐⭐⭐

This is a love story of two Koreans, Nora (played by Greta Lee) and Na Young (played by Teo Yoo), that spans across 20 years beginning from the time they were childhood friends. Nora migrates to Canada with her parents while she was still a child. She keeps contact with Na Young periodically, eventually coming to a head 20 years later when Na Young visits a now married Nora in New York city. This Korean movie has been receiving universally positive reviews since it was released in the middle of 2023. Remarkably, it is included in many film critics’ top ten films for 2023! I had somehow put off watching this because of the subtitles thingy but as I have professed as part of my 2024 New Year resolutions to watch more foreign language movies. So now that I have finally watched this, is it worthy of the top ten films listing that it has been earning? Well, I am divided for this one so it’s more like a “yes” and “no”.

“Yes” for those who like their movies ridden with metaphor or symbolic meanings behind the dialouge, behaviour and how the scenes are presented. Such viewers will find delight in unraveling the hidden meaning behind the seemingly ordinary dialouge or scenes and derive a sense of satisfaction and achievement. Past Lives is full of such opportunities presented in an easy to digest and decipher manner. Even the title itself carries a heavy subtext referring to an old Korean belief that people’s encounters and relationships are linked to their past lives. While the film may be dialouge heavy it also has moments of quiet which are staged and performed to mirror what is going on in our characters’ mind.

“No” for those who are less impressed by its moving subtlety and prefer their films to be a bit more straight forward. While the romantic story itself is easily relatable it may seem contrived to suit the flow of the narration. Much of the film is filmed with heavy focus on the performers’ faces so this technique may feel a bit stifling. I am personally okay with this and thought it actually highlights the quality of the performances.

Watching Past Lives, it is hard to believe that this is actually the first film for its writer, director Celine Song. It is directed with so much confidence. It looks and sounds so refreshingly different from the usual Hollywood movies I watch. Most importantly it shows a sensitivity to its characters and presents a story that has decent characters, without relying on the need for the story to go ballistic with anger, violence and tragedy. I however cannot help feeling that perhaps the main characters here were all too nice and respectable. I just felt that under the circumstances the story would go a different direction had one of more of the characters decided not to do the right thing! The central plot of an unfulfilled romance here is of course a tragedy, but the story manages to offer optimism with its closure giving it a feel-good effect.

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