Star-crossed love beyond time in Past Lives

By Stephen Aspeling25 June 2024

Star-crossed love beyond time in Past Lives

Do you believe in fate and the idea that your soulmate is out there somewhere? When it comes to star-crossed romance, it’s usually Romeo and Juliet who take centre stage. In Korean culture, it’s believed that we live through a tapestry of interactions with echoes of past lives. This goes beyond coincidence, deeply connected to the understanding of karma as our actions create ripples across reincarnations. The potent concept is known as in-yun and forms the core of the star-crossed romance drama Past Lives

Nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, it’s surprising to learn that this is a directorial debut for Celine Song, the second Asian woman to receive a Best Picture nomination, after Nomadland. A haunting meditation on destiny and love, the script’s intimacy and nuance is realised by a fine cast of up-and-coming actors in Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro.  

A beautiful, haunting and tender romance, Past Lives centres on two childhood friends who are forced separate ways only to reconnect in later life. Na Young moves to Canada as Hae Sung continues life in Korea where he enrolls in an engineering course and military service before entering the workplace. Meanwhile Na moves to New York with her parents where she becomes a playwright and changes her name to Nora. 

Exploring the concept of in-yun over several decades, Past Lives draws Nora and Hae Sung closer together as they begin to realise the depth and origin of their yearning. Oceans apart, their undeniable chemistry and unfulfilled longing draws them back into an intense online relationship and each other’s lives as adults through social media connectivity in the age of Facebook. 

In-yun’s karmic threads are not limited to romance, but this fuels the see-sawing will-they-won’t-they tension in Past Lives. The concept suggests that as random as our lives seem, there’s inherent meaning in every encounter, taking place on a much broader canvas. The power of destiny and free will come into focus as Song’s heartfelt romance drama escalates through an intimacy rarely seen on screen. When Nora and Hae Sung reconnect by chance, there’s a sense of familiarity and nostalgia that recalls their childhood and enables them to essentially pick up where they left off. 

Song cites a conversation between her American husband and a childhood sweetheart from Korea as the film’s inspiration. The central concept for Past Lives was conceived after meeting in a bar in the East Village, Manhattan. “I was sort of becoming a bridge or a portal between these two men and also, in some ways, these two worlds of language and culture.” Taking on these pivotal roles are Lee, Yoo and Magaro in heartfelt, soulful and thoughtful performances.  

Past Lives will be Lee and Yoo’s calling card for many years to come. Having an array of acting and voice work experience, this is a breakthrough performance for Greta Lee, who wears the indecision and heartache well. Playing opposite her with a magnetic pull on the other side of the planet is Teo Yoo, who comes off the Park Chan-wook crime drama mystery Decision to Leave. Rounding off the trio is in-demand actor John Magaro, who can be seen in The Many Saints of Newark and Call Jane. In an earthy performance of uncommon understanding, he serves as a gateway and reality check. 

Past Lives unfolds in its own time, giving scenes a life-like quality as viewers are swathed in a slow-burning rekindled romance between two old friends. This vicarious fly-on-the-wall experience is intoxicating as one sinks into the giddy flutter of nostalgia and blossoming romance. With the warmth of their undeniable chemistry, the promise of love between soulmates becomes the currency of Past Lives. 

Song captures much of what made Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail so enticing and evocative. Nurturing the power of chance encounters and platonic connection in the modern age, Past Lives has many parallels with these genre classics. A subtle character portrait, there’s very little spoon-feeding, allowing a complex and mature modern romance to emerge with its roots in timely themes such as alienation, urban living and cultural identity. 

Celine Song has crafted a sensitive, touching and wistful atmosphere for the haunting world of Past Lives. The poetic undertone, silky visuals and underlying tension of this romance drama keeps you emotionally invested in the unrequited love. Channeling a real ebb-and-flow, it’s difficult not to recall and resonate with this complicated relationship as life gets in the way. Rooting for the co-leads as they navigate their separate lives, careers and relationships, a real sense of heartache and life’s bittersweet symphony rings true as the eternal battle between heart and mind rages on. A masterful directorial debut, this haunting and stirring portrait will linger long after the credits roll.   

Stream Past Lives now on Showmax.