Celine Song’s Achingly Beautiful, Contemplative Drama Is A Must-See [Sundance]

Director Celine Song captures all of this in a lovely, contemplative way — the camera drifts its way through scenes almost dreamily. Sometimes, a shot will linger on an object, or a wall, or a window, long after the scene itself has ended. When two characters are having a conversation, the camera will float back and forth between them, as if it were a feather drifting back and forth on an oscillating breeze. Sound plays an important part in the storytelling as well — sounds of the city, sounds of nature, sounds of rain sliding down against window glass. The world the film inhabits feels rich and real and frequently beautiful. 

When Hae Sung arrives in New York, he and Nora hit the town, sightseeing at various New York spots while Arthur, who says he’s not concerned about all of this but is clearly a little uncomfortable, remains home. This enables the two childhood friends to reconnect in quiet, contemplative ways. The concept of “In Yun” is bought up — first between Nora and Arthur, and then later between Norra and Hae Sung. It’s an idea that involves reincarnation, and how everyone you encounter in this life — however briefly — is someone you encountered thousands of times before in thousands of other lives. “Perhaps I was a bird and you were the branch I landed on,” Nora tells Hae Sung at one point, a line so beautiful that it caused me to briefly catch my breath.

“Past Lives” is a quiet, meditative film, but it is stunning in its execution. The chemistry feels real between Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, but it also feels just as genuine between Lee and Magaro. Arthur could’ve easily been the third wheel character, and in one of the film’s most knowing scenes, he contemplates that if their lives were a movie, Arthur would be the boring white husband keeping Nora from her long-lost love. But Arthur is clearly a kind, understanding person, and Hae Sung can see that.

The dreamy, deliberate pacing of all of this never feels overlong. Instead, the film gathers you up in its hands and carries you along with it, resulting it what will surely be one of the best films of 2023. And audiences will surely find themselves swept up in the reality the characters find themselves in — who among us doesn’t have regrets and dreams about the past? We’re all haunted and sometimes comforted by thoughts of what might have been, and acceptance of what we really have, in this life or the next.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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