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Past Lives


A green orange and pink striped background, with a circular photograph in the centre showing a still from the film. It shows the two protagonists, a man and a woman, standing on a train, staring into each others eyes


This week, three rrramble writers don their red-carpet best and lean into the Awards Season™ hype to review Oscar's Best Picture nom, Past Lives. A debut for Canadian-Korean director Celine Song, Past Lives is semi-autobiographical and follows two childhood friends over the course of 24 years as they consider the nature of their relationship as they grow apart. At rrramble, we don't believe that critical acclaim necessarily equals success - so we sent in our reviewers to see what they made of it. Without further ado...


Elena


When the credits rolled after watching Past Lives for the first time in my local cosy retro cinema, I looked at my friend and gurgled something along the lines of “I’m not okay”. By the sniffling and choked-up voices in our screening, I could tell we weren’t the only ones who were put through the emotional ringer. When I watched it the second time in the comforts of my own home, I cried just as much. The beautiful thing about this tender, intimate love story is, however, that it didn’t feel tragically soul-sucking even though it could have been. I didn’t leave the cinema feeling dejected about life but rather appreciative and pensive in that familiar post-cinema screening daze.


Past Lives’ beginning is just as gentle as its end. Before we even see any characters on screen, we hear bar chatter and an observer of Nora, Arthur and Hae Sung saying, “Who do you think they are to each other?” It is a question the film continues to ask us, the audience, and the characters themselves. This opening scene invites us to ponder who these three people are and what brought them here, and this wandering, meditative quality is woven throughout the whole film in many quiet moments. Nora’s and Arthur’s beginning relationship feels sketched out, letting the audience fill in the long gaps. It opens up space for furnishing the world with a tactility through shots like curtains moving in the wind. 


Celine Song uses all the tools in her filmmaking toolbox with understated precision, letting the story unfold, most significantly perhaps through the cinematography. The film is full of beautiful compositions with slow camera movements instead of a reliance on flashy lighting, giving the viewer time to let their eyes wander and take in the whole mise-en-scéne. In scenes where Nora and Hae Sung are physically together, the camera is often at a distance, and yet we don’t lose any intimacy. I loved how their relationship is depicted through space, two roads diverged, running in parallel, meeting virtually and physically in twelve-year intervals. Despite these huge time jumps, they don’t feel abrupt: everything flows into one another like an enjambement from one line of poetry to the next. A beautifully calming score flows underneath, providing more of a soundscape than distinctive musical motifs.


This tranquil quality doesn’t mean that Past Lives is devoid of big feelings and heavy topics. While I found the dialogue to be subtle, it was also refreshingly direct: characters didn’t dance around their feelings but expressed them with emotional honesty. Many lines resonated in particular with me as somebody who moved to another country and left behind family and friends whom I miss constantly. I felt their frustrations of being in a long-distance relationship (Friendship? Situationship?), battling grainy, lagging images, slow internet, and time zone differences. And yet, as Nora’s mother says, “If you leave something behind, you gain something, too.” You lose and gain different versions of yourself. Nora’s younger version, full of what-ifs, remains safe with Hae Sung and they will always have a connection because of that, which doesn’t take away from Nora’s current life and relationship with her husband Arthur. Despite the hurt egos, heartbreak, and confusion all three go through, I adored how much grace they had for each other. 


Watching Past Lives feels like the comforting hug of somebody you know you will have to say goodbye to but for the moment, you’re just happy that you’re here in their arms.



A woman with short brown hair and a striped shirt hugs a man in a park. His back is towards the camera, and he is wearing a blue shirt and a backpack. The woman looks happy.


Florence


I know I’ll be in the minority saying this, but Song’s Past Lives did not move me as much as I expected it to. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it or that aspects of the film didn’t resonate for me, but as the credits rolled I found myself a little underwhelmed which did surprise me. I’d assumed from the synopsis I would love this film, and whilst it’s undeniably beautiful, it didn’t quite deliver. 


Past Lives’ set-up is undeniably excellent. Beginning with Nora/Na Young, Arthur and Hae Sung sitting at a bar, an off-screen observer wonders aloud “Who are they to each other?”, the question gnawing at the centre of Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship. I loved the scenes showing their childhood together in South Korea. Song has an incredible ability to express the significance we find in our everyday lives; there is something almost impossible to express about the sadness of childhood and yet Song translates this for us into her visual language.


Young Na Young and Hae Sung’s walk home from school is the most memorable example of this; the hill they climb each day is ridiculously steep but they never mention this, it’s part of their everyday mundane, not at all significant - until, suddenly, it is. Na Young is emigrating and her final climb with Hae Sung happens in silence, her having to run to keep up with him as he fails to match her pace and already, in a quiet way, they start to disconnect. They reach the point where their paths diverge, with only a “Bye” between them as Hae Sung continues along his straight path home, whilst Na Young ascends further still to a view he won’t see, despite their shared climb. I loved how quietly dramatic this scene was. The last ever walk home from school before you move to a new country and never see your crush again? That’s huge! But, as children with no perspective of what’s next, there’s no words for the enormity of this. So, they walk up an enormous hill. And at no point did it feel contrived. Loved it.


It was the characters’ later years where I found my attention began to lapse. After not one, but two1'2 Years Later' interludes I didn’t have nearly the same level of investment in the relationship between the adult Nora and Hae Sung. The world of Past Lives is a quiet one, it does veer dangerously close to being boring at times. It’s a tricky one to navigate, showing these unremarkable people with fairly boring lives and making an audience understand why they’re significant to each other. The film spans 30-odd years and the characters still can’t really define what they are to each other by the end… I understand why this is moving for many, but I find it hard to invest in relationships that largely feel humourless and - sometimes - forced. There are a lot of memorable lines, but they seem to be in the film for the purpose of being “quotable” rather than revealing new depths to the characters. An example of character depth that has to be acknowledged, though, is Arthur; the man’s novel is called “Boner” yet he navigates Nora’s emotional almost-affair with a level of maturity I wouldn’t have expected.


There’s a lot to enjoy in Past Lives and I can’t stress that enough. Especially considering this is Song’s debut, I’m excited to see her future work and how her style evolves from here. 



A man and a woman sit on grey, concrete steps in front of a merry-go-round, which is lit up with fairground lights. The atmosphere between them is tense.


Sasha


A poignant film in which the blurry distinctions between romance, friendship and fate are brought into focus by the immigrant experience; Past Lives is a romance that lingers rather than soars. Na Young and Hae Sung are classmates and childhood friends in South Korea, and share one charming date together before Na Young abruptly tells her class that she is emigrating to the U.S. She changes her name to Nora Moon, pursues an ambitious career as an author, and they lose contact for twelve years. Onto the spoilers… After finding each other on social media, they establish a connection again, before Nora breaks things off in order to concentrate on establishing her life in New York. They meet again after a further twelve years, and reflect on how their lives have unfolded, and their significance to each other.


Romances often veer on formulaic, relying on a certain lazy heterosexuality à la Avril Lavigne’s classic “he was a boy, she was a girl, can I make it any more obvious?”. At the same time, some cult classics like The Notebook have left me hiccup-crying surrounded by tissues. There is a simplicity to the dialogue of this script in Past Lives, but it creates a frankness between characters that suggests their ease with each other, even in awkward moments. Of course, the dialogue is layered in the sense that Na Young/Nora moves between Korean and English, presenting shifting dynamics of distance and closeness with different characters, and a certain access to different sides to her experience.


Past Lives drew me in, from the very first few minutes, with its beautiful framing. The close shots portray both intimacy and mystery, as we are left waiting for contextual clues. Yes, it’s been done before, but it is done very well.  Unfolding at a slower pace allows a breathing room for the different chronologies to seep into each other, which I loved. The scenes of childhood are full of colour - soft primary colours - and fall into picture-postcard moments at each turn. It perfectly demonstrates the strange duality of seeing through your own past self’s eyes, while also seeing it retrospectively from afar. It’s a visually delicious way to explore the impact of distant memories.


This is definitely a story that may resonate in a variety of ways for different viewers. Alongside the yearning, for me it highlighted the way in which a good friendship contains a little romance. Making each other feel special, putting each other at ease. And a good romantic relationship sits on a bedrock of friendship. The inside jokes, lack of performance, and caring check-ins.  As a tight portrait of three characters, there was nowhere to hide. In this minimal cast, I was especially taken by the child actors, Seung Ah Moon and Seung Min Yim. So much of the narrative relies on the importance of their feelings for each other, and they moved with seeming effortlessness between playfulness, belly laughs, and the disconnected seriousness with which children explore ideas of marriage and loss. I also admired Teo Yoo’s attention to detail in the videochat scenes, and Greta Lee’s code-switching throughout her role.

Past Lives poses love next to in love, old love, true love. And ultimately, it doesn’t rank them. All of the love shared between Na Young/Nora Moon and her two romantic interests is honoured, and in this way, it moves beyond being a ‘what if’ narrative. I see Celine Song’s directorial debut becoming a classic of the genre, and I will be watching out for anything else with her name on it. In addition to her impact on cinema, she has caused a serious dent in my box of tissues. 




Edited by Abs Reeve

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