Celine Song’s Past Lives

In Celine Song’s beautifully understated debut film, 12 and 3 stand out as key numbers and portents of fate for three intimately connected lives.

Scene 1: Present day in a New York bar. Three people sit and talk. We can’t hear what they say, just narrated guesses by an off-stage chorus of two, observing them, intrigued by the sight. Like games we may have played when young, watching others on the street, in a bus, in a store, attaching this or that life-story to people we will never know. An echo of us, perhaps, the film’s audience, watching them from a great deal further away. Who is what to whom? Who is the odd one out?

A flash-back wipes out the first scene, and we’re in Seoul, South Korea, 24 years earlier. There we meet Na Young and Hae Sung, girl and boy, both 12. They’re on the cusp of being childhood sweethearts, or already there, a little lost in their feelings about one another, as would be the case for most kids their age. But then Na Young abruptly immigrates to Canada with her family, and that almost-relationship ends before it really begins, before they can even say goodbye. Or seems to. There wouldn’t be a story, of course, if the finale happened so close to the beginning.

So they find each other again, twelve years later, online, and strike up a long distance relationship that deepens and matures with time. But the distance causes pain, and Na Young (Greta Lee) breaks things off with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). This time, it’s her call. Or fate’s. Or in-yun, a Korean Buddhist concept involving reincarnation, karma, cosmic harmonies.

Life, of course, goes on, resets, morphs into other things. Song merges three, and two, and one, and twelve, and we the audience get our goodbyes, if we want them. I didn’t. I wanted to spend a lot more time with the characters, especially Greta Lee’s Na Young. But both Teo Yoo and John Magaro, whose Arthur was the “third wheel” from the opening scene, make us care about their stories as well.

Past Lives is a sweet, intelligent, moving tale, and the best film I’ve seen from 2023.

Celine Song’s Past Lives
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