Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora (Greta Lee) silently speak to one another.

I’ve Already Found My Favorite New Movie of 2023

5 out of 5 stars.

In any work of fiction, it’s not inherently the art’s “job” to perfectly—let alone accurately—reflect reality. However, the few works that do are the ones that leave the biggest impact on us. In a world where most media tends to skew towards hyperbole in order to make even a fraction of a point, the works that turn our gazes inward in poignant, meaningful ways are some of the most worth celebrating. I’m incredibly pleased to say that Past Lives is such a film.

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When Past Lives opens, you are given a shot of the three central characters sitting in a bar: an Asian man, an Asian woman, and a white man. They’re speaking to each other, but you can’t hear what they’re saying; instead, you hear two strangers, who are never revisited, speculating how these three characters are related. Their observations are shallow and uncomfortably racial, yet the setup is brilliant, as it establishes a sense of voyeurism that lingers throughout the film very naturally. As soon as this narrative aside ends, you are taken away from the more generalized perspective of an outsider looking in on a vague plot, and you’re instead sucked into the lives of Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo).

The remainder of the film is like this, at once so deeply personal that it almost feels intrusive, yet so ultimately resonant regarding human connection that it left me on the verge of tears. As it is, I saw the movie a week ago, and have been trying ever since to find the words to aptly discuss it. There’s so much to this film, and it’s all wrapped up in such a gorgeous, subtle way.

Yes, we’ve still got just about another six months before the year is officially over, so it might seem premature to call this my favorite film of 2023. However, I really can’t overstate enough just how special Past Lives really is. It’s the sort of film that not everyone will understand, yet ultimately reflects everyone in some capacity, all the same.

“In Yun”

*Light spoilers ahead*

Past Lives is about the connection between two childhood friends who drift in and out of each others’ lives, and always painfully so. Nora was born with the name Na Young, and she and Hae Sung grew up together. Their connection was so strong that even their parents thought that they’d become a couple someday, watching them play with each others’ hands and moon over each other in the playground. However, despite having found success within their fields in South Korea, Na Young’s parents ultimately saw more opportunity in the United States. When prodded by Hae Sung’s mother, Na Young’s mother replied something to the effect of: “When you leave something behind, you gain everything.”

This is a difficult movie to talk about without spoiling it, as it’s almost entirely character-focused. So much of the plot is wrapped up in the seemingly mundane aspects of their lives, and how they all somehow intertwine in one way or another. When they speak to their friends and family, they’re flippant and casual; yet when they’re alone, or when they’re speaking with one another, there is a sense of calm and heaviness that sucks you in, as though you are there, living those moments with them. Nora fronts as though she’s unshakeable, and Hae Sung tries to seem like he’s got it all figured out, yet when they’re together, they are utterly disarmed, as though they were children in the park again.

And that is ultimately the great tension of the film, the uncertainty of their bond. It might sound boring on paper, but I think everyone goes through something like this, whether they realize it or not. Part of why I was close to tears was because I have also had to let go of special people for reasons that we ultimately have no control over. I don’t think many attempt to examine this sort of loss, because it’s painful; instead, we try to rationalize our feelings and put them away, “life goes on,” and so on.

Past Lives doesn’t do that. It leans into just how important the most beautiful connections in our lives are, and then forces you to grapple with the most difficult reality of loss: that sometimes, you cannot avoid it. Sometimes, things just don’t work out, and it’s not always anyone’s “fault.” All you can do is keep moving forward.

In the case of Nora and Hae Sung, they instead console themselves with a recurring notion: that of “In Yun,” a Korean concept regarding the bonds we share with others over many lifetimes. In Yun posits that we cross paths with the same people over countless lifetimes, but the In Yun you might share with a loved one is different from, say, someone you brush up against on the street. In order to keep moving forward with their lives, Nora and Hae Sung continually invoke In Yun, as a promise to both their past and future lives that they will continue to, at the very least, mean something to one another.

Korean, American, Within and Without

Part of why I was so initially excited to see this film was because it seemed like a genuinely authentic story about Asian people, during a time when this supposed “Golden Age of Asian representation in Hollywood” could go in any direction. Instead of playing into tropes, Past Lives explores aspects of Asianness that often go unexamined in media—or, at the very least, in any way that’s real and respectful.

One such thing was the realistic intricacy of being an Asian woman dating a white man. There are all kinds of foul stereotypes out there about Asian women and white men, and often when these relationships are explored in media, they lean into these stereotypes. Past Lives doesn’t do this with Nora’s relationship.

She meets her husband, Arthur (John Magaro), at a writing retreat, during another time of complication and uncertainty with Hae Sung. Her relationship with Arthur is different: she explains In Yun to him playfully, saying that Koreans only use it to seduce people. Compared to her bond with Hae Sung, Nora’s relationship with Arthur is silly, simple, and steady. By the time Nora rekindles with Hae Sung yet again, they have been together for seven years, married for five, and while Nora says that they fight passionately, they ultimately seem very content.

However, Arthur is honest about his concerns regarding their rekindling. He outright says he doesn’t want to be the “evil white American husband, standing in the way of destiny,” and that he sometimes doubts Nora’s feelings for him because she is an enigma to him. He acknowledges that there are things he simply will never understand about her, or her life, because how could he? In his own words, he’s a “nice Jewish boy from the Upper East Side,” and she is a Korean immigrant who speaks Korean in her sleep, yet refuses to practice Korean with her own husband. He feels as though there is depth to her that he cannot possibly catch up to, and this makes him feel insecure.

To which Nora basically replies, “It’s not that deep. It’s just my life. Just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it makes us inherently incompatible.”

Indeed, there is a steadfast attitude within Nora that keeps her grounded, which I find reminiscent of what a lot of Asian Americans end up adopting. It’s this attitude of, I am more than my background, let me prove it to you. And when it applies to her relationship with Arthur, I actually found it to be very realistic and refreshing, because they didn’t lean into the “evil white boyfriend” trope at all. Arthur wants to understand her better, he learned Korean to speak with her and her family, and he even visits Seoul with her.

But Nora is determined to keep that part of her locked away, not because she wants to hold him at arm’s length, but because her Koreanness is intangibly linked with Hae Sung. To lean fully into her Koreanness is to also explore the possibilities of another life, where she’d either stayed in Korea or moved back, and the kind of life they could have led together. And in a culture that celebrates her more for being Americanized, and in a life where she cannot get what she wants by moving back to Korea, it’s just too painful to explore these possibilities.

I realize I’m talking a lot about Nora in this review, so I do want to take a moment to point out that Hae Sung’s side of the story is just as compelling, and he’s a very easy character to empathize with. However, Nora often feels like the center of the narrative, because one of the film’s central themes is what we gain and lose by leaving. And ultimately, it’s Nora who left, and continues to leave, while Hae Sung continues to miss her and seek her out. Where Hae Sung’s narrative weight strikes heaviest is in these moments where he reminds her of who she was, and, to a degree, who she still is. She cannot simply pretend he wasn’t a part of her life, and by extension, she cannot pretend she never grew up in Korea, and that she isn’t Korean.

The way the film resolves this tension and uncertainty is gutting in a way that, even if I did want to spoil it, I couldn’t properly articulate. I’ve just never seen a film convey these feelings–of connection, of loss, and of Asian identity–in a way that made me feel so personally devastated.

Like waking up from a dream

Again, I don’t know that everyone will understand this movie, and I don’t say that with a sneer. Character-focused movies are hit-or-miss for a lot of audiences, and on top of that, the ins and outs of the Asianness in this film might leave some viewers feeling a little out of their depth.

However, I will say this. It has been a long, long time since a new movie made me feel so connected to its cast and characters. When the film ended, I felt like I was waking up from a dream. It was as though my brain couldn’t make sense of the fact that I wouldn’t see more of what would happen between Nora and Hae Sung. Past Lives is absolutely dripping with pathos and humanity, yet not in a way that makes me fear watching it a few more times. I want to watch this with my mom, with my friends, with partners. I think we’re better off having films like this in the world.

Even with so many good films coming out this year, I would be shocked if anything else surpassed Past Lives in my eyes. What a triumph.

(Featured Image: A24)


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Author
Madeline Carpou
Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).