Past Lives review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
No matter how your life turns out, there comes a point when you reach your early forties and start looking back. You think about the people you used to know and the life you used to live. As you trace the projection to your current point in time, a thought crosses your mind: What if I had taken this route instead? What if I pursued that girl I had a crush on? What if I took this job instead of that one? What if I hadn’t moved away? These thoughts plague the characters of the earnest drama Past Lives.
The film gives the audience a glimpse at the lives of Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae (Teo Yoo). They grew up together in South Korea and formed a bond that seemed to ensure they’d end up together. Unfortunately, Nora and her family moved to Canada when she was young. The two of them went their separate ways as Hae became an engineer in Korea while Nora became a writer in America. They reconnect 12 years later over the internet, but they decide to put their reconnection on hold again, considering how strange Nora views that Hae sought her out after so many years.
Another 12 years pass and Nora marries Arthur (John Magaro). Still hung up on Nora, Hae decides to travel to New York City to reconnect with the girl he knew many years ago. Their meetings are touching yet awkward, and they speak more about South Korean culture than their lives. But as they spend more time together, they start revealing more about themselves. Even after having spent so long separated, there’s a thin bond between them that they want to preserve to some degree somberly. It’s an aspect of Nora’s past she hasn’t quite gotten over and one that Arthur feels he has to let her realize to a certain terminus.
This is such a tender film in that it presents a bittersweet relationship that didn’t unfold like these two characters had hoped. There are quiet moments of connection as Nora and Hae slowly warm up to each other as they make small talk in Korean as they stroll around New York. In a lesser film, this might’ve been the moment when Nora dumps Arthur and runs off to be with Hae, her true love. But that’s not how the world works when you’ve spent so many years away from the people you once knew. It’s not like Nora can just step back into being the swooning girl who depended on Hae, despite whatever feelings Hae may still hold onto for her after his recent breakup with a girlfriend.
The ultimate gut punch of truth comes when Nora admits that she’s not the same girl and that Hae isn’t the same boy. Both of them grew up and went their separate paths. Had they both stayed in South Korea, they might’ve been married. But that didn’t happen and it won’t happen given how different they’ve become since then. It’s a truth that adults can recognize, but one that still hurts. Even when Nora states this with an almost content and sage view, she still ends up crying in the arms of Arthur soon after, punctured by the very essence of the pesky what-if questions that cloud our minds. There’s also a certain somberness in how Arthur, despite being a good husband, fears that he’ll never fully be a part of Nora’s world, as though her background with someone like Hae remains under strict lock and key. Nora assures him it’s not a problem, but the truth is that it’s a locked-away version of Nora that he’ll never know and she’ll never become again.
Past Lives is refreshingly honest about the nature of growing older, pursuing relationships, and letting go of the ones that would never progress past a crush. The mixture of sadness and serenity in a film like this can’t be overstated for how amazingly it touches on a crucial part of the human experience. Being close to the age of both the actors, there’s a painful relatability to it all, but also contentment with the progression of time, letting the tears flow as they may, but being grateful that you get to spend this life with someone wonderful, even if it was only for one chapter with a brief encounter years later. Films like this are a wondrous depiction of how fragile we can become, even if we’ve talked ourselves into being okay with the people we’ll never have the same relationships with again.