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A24’s heartbreaking Past Lives was one of the best movies of 2023

Updated Dec 11th, 2023 9:01PM EST
A24 movie Past Lives
Image: A24

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In a year of superhero bombast, Barbenheimer, and overlong epics from directors like Ridley Scott and Martin Scorsese, A24’s Past Lives stands out as a quiet, understated triumph. The movie — which was a big winner at the Gotham Awards, picked up several Golden Globe nods, and is also up for a Best Picture Oscar — has a dreamy pace to its storytelling that recalls filmmakers like Noah Baumbach and even Wong Kar-wai. It’s about childhood crushes and lost love, and the way immigrant experiences force a reckoning with roads not taken.

All of which is to say: In thinking through the best movies I saw last year, I keep coming back to this dreamy marvel of a directorial debut from Celine Song. Furthermore, if there’s any justice in the world, Past Lives would take home that Best Picture award next month — though I’ve no doubt that one of 2023’s interminably long features from Scorsese or Christopher Nolan will take home that prize, instead. At any rate, the best I can do is implore you to seek out this movie if you haven’t already.

The characters at the center of Past Lives, Nora and Hae Sung, were childhood sweethearts who were wrest apart from each other after Nora’s family emigrated from South Korea. Two decades later, they reunite as adults for one week in New York City. Streaming audiences will recognize Greta Lee, who plays Nora, from her work on series like Apple TV+’s The Morning Show and Russian Doll on Netflix. She is absolutely mesmerizing here, in a movie that draws from the Korean concept of “in-yun” — essentially, a relationship between two people within the context of destiny.

That idea is described as comparable to following a set of breadcrumbs over the course of your life. And if you’re unkind or unobservant along the way, you can irrevocably destroy that search for wherever the breadcrumbs end. Supposedly, according to Nora, in-yun can manifest itself even in something as mundane as two people cognizant of the fact that they’ve brushed each other’s sleeve on a busy city street.

Early on in the film, Nora is a young girl choosing an English name in preparation for her family’s move from Korea to Canada — a relocation that, among other things, meant leaving behind the sweet young boy she walked home from school with and who’s left devastated after her departure. Nora grows up and follows her trail of breadcrumbs to New York. She becomes a playwright. Hae Sung, meanwhile, has never been able to forget her. He looks her up, connects with her online, and thanks to Skype — the two friends from the past have returned to the present. The complicating factor is that Nora already has a present of her own, in the form of her marriage to a white American man.

Nevertheless, Hae Sung coming back into her life makes clear that his deep affection for Nora endures. As a result, a will-she-or-won’t-she accompanies every moment of Nora’s time on onscreen.

Honestly, there’s nothing in Past Lives you haven’t seen before; is charm lies in its execution. Past Lives is as quiet and unpretentious the sight of two schoolchildren in Seoul walking home together, or two old friends reuniting in New York City in front of a carousel, fantasizing about what might have been. The line, I think, that wrecked me the most in the movie is when an adult Hae Sung asks Nora, about their increasingly complicated interactions: “What if this is a past life as well, and we are already something else to each other in our next life? Who do you think we are then?”

I’m not sure I can articulate what I felt by the time the credits started rolling. Past Lives left me feeling heartbroken, contemplative, and a little euphoric. It’s the kind of movie where you sit there in silence, reeling, once it’s finished working you over. Whatever in-yun has in store for Song, I hope it includes directing another gloriously satisfying feature film like this one very soon.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.