Sundance 2023: ‘Past Lives’ Perfectly Captures Melancholic Longing
CairoScene editor-at-large and Tomato-meter-approved critic Wael Khairy reviews Sundance 2023’s breakthrough film, ‘Past Lives’.
Sundance’s 2023 Premiere: Past Lives
If there’s one film that screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival that garnered universal acclaim from critics and audiences alike, it’s Celine Song’s Past Lives. A bittersweet story about the lives we might have shared with others had we chosen different paths, Past Lives perfectly captures the shared feeling of melancholic longing between two souls. It basks us in the yearning for forbidden love better than any film I’ve seen this decade. It’ll have you smiling at awkward situations one second, and wiping tears off your face the next.
This epic romantic saga spans decades, and follows the deep connection between Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), two childhood friends who get torn apart before getting reunited twenty years later. They form a long-distance Skype relationship, but Nora inevitably sacrifices the possibility of a fruitful development to pursue her career goals in New York. When fate brings them back together years later, she’s already married to someone else, but the surging unspoken love for her childhood friend still lingers and begs to be released.
At one point in the film, Nora explains the Korean concept of inyeon, meaning the ties between two people over the course of their lives. She describes how our spirits get reincarnated claiming different life forms. If we brush against a stranger in this life, it means we met before in a previous one. But if two spirits get married, it means they have formulated a bond in thousands of shared past lives. And while her relationship with Hae Sung may not be meant to develop during this life, it might be a stepping stone for another one.
Our daily lives are filled with so many different little interactions with complete strangers, familiar friends, or loved ones. Short-lived moments like a conversation on a ferry, or a shared smirk with some random bystander, may actually be signals from the universe. These encounters could be reunions we are unknowingly experiencing with people we met in our past lives. Naturally, these incidents can trigger an avalanche of emotions; emotions beyond any descriptions or words, they are simply felt. One of the strong suits of this film is the way it handles emotions through silences.
So many films are edited and built around dialogue. Exchanges between characters are meant to propel the plot forward, so we end up with too many cuts between actors delivering lines to one another. Rarely do we linger in the awkward and sometimes comfortable silence between two individuals. Song masterfully uses these silences to punctuate meaning and emphasise emotion at key points within the story. It shows incredible maturity and handling of her own material. Perhaps the director mastered this in her past life as a playwright.
Song fills her delicate screenplay with so many cultural insights, which adds tremendous depth to a familiar story. There is also something very meta about how the characters react to cliché conventions of the romance genre. When Hae Sung plans a trip to New York, his friends crack up when they check the weather forecast and find out that it’ll be raining the whole time he’s there; of course, it will. But Past Lives is way too smart to fall into any genre tropes. When it does, it does it consciously. Nora’s very likeable husband makes that very clear in one bedroom conversation where he utters in humorous frustration that he’s the annoying white guy preventing fate from taking course.
It is only the beginning of the year, and yet, there’s no doubt in mind that Past Lives will be one of the most impressive original screenplays of the year. The film is also destined to top many critic lists of the best films of the 2023. A brilliant debut that will pull on your heart-strings, and make you ponder about the million different lives you could be leading under different circumstances. I can’t wait to see what Celine Song has in store for us next. With Past Lives, we are being introduced to one of the most promising filmmakers out there.