Past Lives: Berlinale 2023 Review

Year: 2023

Runtime: 105 minutes

Written and directed by Celine Song

Actors: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Moon Seung-ah, Leem Seung-min

By Sarah Manvel

There is nothing more human than wanting the best possible life, and no greater show of humanity than wondering if all the struggle was worth it. The choice of a new life and the promise it holds is amplified when you have to jump through international bureaucracy (and probably learn a new language) in order to make it happen. When someone you knew before you left shows up, they bring with them all the baggage of a youthful, baggage-free love affair, but also the knowledge of the life left behind when the border was crossed, which your new country will never fully understand. “Past Lives” is an unusually intelligent movie that understands immigration in its bones.

“Past Lives” is an unusually intelligent movie that understands immigration in its bones.

When Nora (Greta Lee, outstanding) was a young girl in Korea (Moon Seung-ah), she had a different name and was very close with a boy in her class, Hae Sung (Leem Seung-min). Nora’s family left for Canada when she was twelve, before social media was invented, and their separation was a wrench for both Hae Sung and Nora. When Nora is 24, an idle game with her mother on Facebook reveals that the adult Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) has been looking for her. They reconnect and discover their, whatever it is, is as strong as it ever was. But Nora has immigrated again, this time to New York City, and is concerned that by spending all her time skyping with Hae Sung she is losing her opportunity to ground herself in her new place. So another twelve years pass before they see each other again, this time in person in New York. It becomes clear Hae Sung has come to see Nora before deciding whether or not to commit to his on-and-off girlfriend. However Nora is happily married to Arthur (John Magaro), a fellow writer who has learned some Korean and who loves his wife.

When Arthur learns about this visit, he is smart enough to realise two things. First, Hae Sung obviously has always loved Nora. Second, Nora’s decision, should she decide to make it, is not so much between one man or the other as it is between one country or the other. Her life with Arthur and the love she has for him are obviously excellent reasons for her to stay in New York – and that’s not getting into her career, of course. But first love always hits different, everyone knows that. And there are parts of Nora Arthur will never understand in the way Hae Sung does. Part of that is cultural but most of that is true connections forged in childhood, which can never be weakened by adult distance. So Nora’s dilemma is nothing as simple as this man or that one. It’s the dilemma of the immigrant: who have I become since I left? Who would I have been if I stayed? And will I be my true self if I remain, or if I return?

What writer-director Celine Song and her uniformly excellent cast have done is shown the immigrant experience both from the inside (Nora’s perspective) and from that of the people affected by the choice to immigrate (Hae Sung from the land left behind, Arthur from the land moved into). There are little pieces of business throughout the movie that are just wonderful little snippets of humanity, such as the mothers chatting on the park bench. But there are also Hae Sung’s drunken evenings with his friends, who are all obviously ride or die for each other without making a big deal of it. Nora’s chatter in the bathroom and Arthur quietly digesting what she says as a continuing series of body blows, without making a big deal of it. Arthur and Hae Sung’s disbelieving talk in the bar, with their good manners and their surprise at how much they like each other coming through. And in the middle of this is an exceptional, bilingual performance by Ms Lee, as she is forced to examine a decision she thought she’d already made: is her life the only one there is? What is created here is a perfect movie. “Past Lives” is flawless. Do not miss it under any circumstances. 


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