A24 has been on a tear for months now, thanks to stellar releases like Oscar darling Everything Everywhere All At Once and the Netflix series Beef — the latter being one of the best new series to hit the streaming giant so far this year. The company’s newest movie, meanwhile, is not only going to keep that winning streak going. It’s also going to end up near the top of so many “Best Movies of 2023” compilations, will break your heart, turn many of you into a sobbing mess, and very likely send you back out into the world looking backward and inward, weighing memories and regrets. Such is the nature of Past Lives, a dreamy, delicate gem from director Celine Song that’s nothing short of a marvel.
There’s a dreamy, melancholic quality to the movie that’s a little reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. And ahead of its wide release scheduled for June 23, Past Lives has already debuted in limited release to rapturous reviews and near-perfect critics’ and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes.
As for what it’s about, the synopsis from A24:
“Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, are wrest apart after Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. Two decades later, they are reunited in New York for one fateful week as they confront notions of destiny, love, and the choices that make a life, in this heartrending modern romance.”
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. The idea is described as comparable to following a set of breadcrumbs that’s unique to you over the course of your life. And if you’re unkind or unobservant along the way, you can irrevocably destroy that search for where 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.
In the real world, we are all prisoners of this moment, right now, hovering in a state of endless transition between the past and what’s still to come. In Past Lives, characters exist in something more akin to a present-perfect state — along a temporal continuum where the life of a character like Nora is the sum total of roads she’s gone down, choices she’d made, choices she didn’t, her life’s past, and the past lives that collided to influence her own, and those of the people around her.
Early on in the film, Nora is a young girl choosing an English name in preparation for her family’s immigration from Korea to Canada — a relocation that, among other things, meant leaving behind her childhood sweetheart. Hae Sung is the boy she walked home from school with, and the boy 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. Where is the space for choice and possibility if destiny trumps everything else in our lives? What makes Past Lives such a wistful and beautiful movie is that points a way toward the irresistible notion that destiny doesn’t have to be a conveyer belt that carries us passively along. I feel like the point of a movie like this is that destiny and possibility — maybe they’re really just two different versions of the same thing.