Berlinale 2023: Celine Song's 'Past Lives' is a Lovely Look at Choices

February 24, 2023

Past Lives Review

It will always be a mystery trying to figure out where life will take us next. Even though we cannot see into the future, many dwell on their past and the choices they've made. It is an alluring thought process, usually tantalizing and stimulating. We can wonder what if over & over, and can make an important decision taking us down a different path today, but our lives will always continue from where they are right now. Playwright Celine Song's feature directorial debut is titled Past Lives, a beautiful, warm embrace of a film touching on these topics of choices & decisions. After first premiering at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, it has gone on to screen at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival in the Main Competition section. Everyone seems to be falling in love with this film at both festivals, and it makes me so happy to observe. I first watched the film at its world premiere at Sundance, putting it on my Best of the Fest list, but I wanted to wait until my second viewing at Berlinale before writing down more of my thoughts on it. I can confirm it's just as wonderful a second time.

Written and directed by Celine Song, Past Lives is influenced by her own life and her connection to a person from her past. The film follows a Korean woman who immigrates from Korea to North America at a young age. She takes on the English name Nora Moon and eventually moves to New York City. The tremendously beautiful and talented Greta Lee is the real heart and soul of this graceful film starring as Nora, taking us on a journey into her emotions and her intimate experiences growing up and falling in love. Nora is married in present day to a lovely Jewish man from New York named Arthur, played tenderly by John Magaro. But before she met him, she was in love with a Korean boy named Hae Sung. After reconnecting with him over Skype while she was studying in NYC, they part ways and don't talk for 12 years until the time comes again. Hae Sung decides to visit NYC and meet with Nora, making her dizzy & overwhelmed with powerful feelings from her past and present. Teo Yoo also stars as Hae Sung, a soft-spoken Korean man who always has Nora in his mind, unable to move on or forget her. The film brings all three together for a few awkward scenes.

It's clear from the response so far, Past Lives is going to be one of the most adored films of 2023, for good reason. I'm in awe that this is the first featured made by Celine Song, as she ever so carefully tells this story with humility and empathy. This film deserves all the same love and attention as The Worst Person in the World, similar in many ways to that one about a woman trying to figure out how she feels between the two most important men in her life. It's just as heartfelt and honest, though Nora's emotions aren't as visible as Julie's in Worst Person. However, she feels just as authentic and convincing. Greta Lee is exceptional in the lead role as Nora, with two lovely supporting performances from Teo Yoo and John Magaro. It's obviously an autobiographical, explore-her-feelings-through-cinema creation though this time it works wonders. The extra emotional ending and perfect final shots in the last few scenes hit hard. That's when the tears started rolling down for me. I'm glad that so many others have really connected with it, too, I'm not the only one raving about it and talking about how it'll stick with us throughout the rest of the year despite an early start.

Even through awkward scenes, potent conversations, and uncomfortable moments, Past Lives is a film with a warm and fuzzy feeling. It's a reminder that you are right where you belong, and that we should learn to trust ourselves more. If all of the choices you've made in your life have lead you to this point today, respect this "fate" and believe in yourself. We can always reminiscence and wonder what else, but perhaps those paths are from another life, not the one we're living now. It's a Buddhist philosophy which is enlivening to see in a mainstream film like this. Song has done a wonderful job telling this story and filling it with the beauty of humanity on screen. How can anyone put into words all the emotions and feelings that one person has for another? It's impossible. No spoken language on this planet has the right words to describe all those feelings and their nuances. There is, however, the language of cinema. It combines storytelling with studious performances with visual artistry and music (the Grizzly Bear score is so good) and sounds and dialogue. With these elements, along with dashes of charm and truthfulness, we're all moved by a film like Past Lives.

Alex's Berlinale 2023 Rating: 9 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing / Or Letterboxd - @firstshowing

Find more posts: Berlinale, Review, Sundance 23



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