Past Lives Review: Living With The Unbearable What Ifs

Adee De Leon
6 min readSep 14, 2023
Warning: minor spoilers ahead.

Love comes in many forms. Some of them, painful.

But nothing stings like unrealized love. For it brings not just the death of wonderous possibilities, but also a lifetime of longing and regret.

Celine Song’s film debut Past Lives is a story about this haunting kind of love. It’s gorgeously shot and well-acted, and stays with you long after you’ve left the theater.

It borrows liberally from the Before trilogy’s conversation heavy approach, while having echoes of Wong Kar Wai. But it’s also completely original in its editing and direction.

There’s a quiet confidence in how this movie is shot and cut. It lets the story breathe, and allows the aching humanity to shine through. As cliché as it sounds, Past Lives is more than the sum of its parts.

The movie’s premise is simple. It chronicles 2 decades of interactions between Na Young, an ambitious but emotional girl, and Hae Sung, a kind, but anxious boy.

Both like each other, but their lives take very different turns when Na Young leaves for Canada at age 12. Meanwhile, Hae Seung stays behind and grows into a typical Korean man.

Their paths continued to stray until 12 years later, they randomly meet again online. They quickly re-connect, and re-discover how much they still like one another.

However, the time difference and distance between them proves too much to overcome. Realizing that neither of them is willing to compromise and pursue a real relationship, Nae Young, (now going as Nora) abruptly calls things off.

And so, they go their separate ways again. 12 years later, Nora is happily married to fellow writer Arthur. Hae Seung meanwhile, is a newly single engineer.

For some reason, he’s finally decided to visit New York. And of course, this unexpected reunion stirs up long-buried feelings in both of them.

Why now? What if? These are the questions that they both have to grapple with during the course of a few days.

So close physically, but there’s an ocean’s worth of feelings standing between them.

I really enjoyed the grace with which everything is handled in this movie. There’s no cheap, unrealistic writing here. Everyone’s a functional adult who’s learned to deal with their feelings in a mature way.

Uncomfortable conversations are had, and tension is felt all throughout this film. But it never descends into predictable melodrama. Nora and Hae Sung are both well-adjusted adults just trying to deal with the reality of still having feelings for each other that they can’t act upon.

This awkward situation is the main conflict of the entire movie. And it unfolds so masterfully. There is pain. Longing. Regret. And a lot of what ifs.

But there’s also a very real and respectful love here. One that is shown through many tiny actions, each loaded with years of yearning.

Gazes are met, and held for uncomfortably long periods of time. At any time, one of them might give in. Deep down, you see that part of them wants to. It’s in their eyes, and their postures.

You feel it in when they stand across from one another while filling in the gaps in their shared past, hoping in some way to make up for lost time.

It is beautiful to watch. But it’s also painful.

See, Past Lives isn’t just about a love that never blossomed. It also gives a nuanced look into the immigrant life, and what that big move does to a person. We see how much it influences their choices and worldviews, to the point that their original identity almost disappears.

Nora herself doesn’t feel Korean. How could she, when she’s lived in New York for much longer than Seoul? At this point, she’s American. Specifically, a New Yorker.

That’s why meeting Hae Sung again does more than remind her of lost love. It also brings back memories of home. It reminds her of the death of her old self, and of a life she never got to live. This shakes her up.

One of the recurring themes in this movie is Inyun, or how fate brings people together because of actions they did in their past lives. For Nora, who’s left Korea and its customs behind, it becomes a mere piece of trivia. One she’s used for flirting.

But to Hae Seung, who is very much Korean, it is something to reflect and dwell on. He may not believe in it literally, but the thought of it stays with him and troubles his soul. To the point that it makes him book that difficult trip to New York to see Nora again and get closure with her.

Maybe he’s building more layers of Inyun while he can, so that he can be with her in another life. It’s sad once you realize it.

But it’s a feeling that anyone who thinks they’ve let “the one” pass them by understands. When you’re out of real options, you cling to anything to help you deal with something you can never change.

The moving depiction of this universal sentiment is what makes Past Lives so incredible. It knows that many of us have been there, but it’s also very realistic about it. There’s no storybook ending here.

In fact, the only antagonist here may as well be destiny itself.

In lesser films, Arthur, (Nora’s husband) would be the bad guy standing between fated love. The film itself even acknowledges that well-worn trope. But he’s just not.

Arthur may be one of the few depictions of a married male writer who isn’t riddled with issues, lol.

What Arthur is is a well-written character. He recognizes the unique awkwardness of the situation, and gets jealous, as he should. But he never turns toxic. He trusts Nora enough to just let things play out. It’s a wonderful depiction of what a mature adult male should be.

See, we’re all human and we all have insecurities. But how we act on them is what defines our values and shapes our relationships. We are who our actions say we are.

After all, our lives and identities are simply the sum of all our choices. And Arthur always chooses love.

Which brings me to the other main theme of this story: choice.

The impact of choices is made clear at the beginning of the film. As Nora’s Mom puts it: “When we leave something behind, we also gain something.” And isn’t that true for all the choices we make? To choose one path is to abandon a whole world of possibilities.

But every choice also unlocks a whole new set of paths too. And as much as we want to, we can never go back. We end up where we’re supposed to — because of what we’ve chosen. Cause and effect.

Sometimes, things work out. And sometimes, they don’t. We live with it either way.

Perhaps that’s why the concept of Inyun is so attractive. Because it suggests that while you may not have been meant to be in this life, there may be one where you both made it. It’s an intoxicating possibility, one with dangerous repercussions if you let it dwell inside your mind for too long.

I’ve been guilty of this, as my dating life is filled with unrealized possibilities. So many paths not taken. So much regret.

It sucks, that feeling of not wanting to let someone go. You keep hoping they’ll come back, and that you get another chance to try.

But it never happens.

As you might expect, this movie wrecked me.

So like Nora and Hae Seung, I have no choice but to carry on. To accept where I ended up in. Like Nora, I know Inyun can’t be real.

But like Hae Sung, I want so bad for it to be.

Because to seek love is human. To actually find it is rare. I don’t know if it’ll happen to me in this lifetime.

But I sure as fuck am gonna try, even though I don’t believe in past or even future lives. This one might be all I have.

So I might as well dive in. Heart-first.

And hope that if there is no next life, I’ve made the most of this one.

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