Korean Drama With A Difference: Past Lives (2023)


Exquisitely delivered and photographed, with a huge emotional punch at the end, Celine Song’s romantic ethical dilemma drama tracks two friends as they experience one childhood data, then separation. What will happen when they reconnect?

We first meet the three main characters in a bar where they are being observed and those watchers are trying to guess their relationship. We pan back across the years to two of the same characters as children in Seoul — Na Young and Hae Sung are 12 year olds, classmates, best friends, academic rivals, who walk home together every day. First love is blossoming in the background. But creatives Mr and Mrs Young have plans to emigrate to Canada. Therefore the mums allow their children to ‘date’ (tho it’s more of a play date) before the great move occurs.

We see Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) in a pause during his military training; whilst Na Young has become Nora (Greta Lee) and a budding playwright in New York. Chatting to her Mum, they start playing a game of searching out her former classmates — which includes Hae Sung. They reconnect, but neither are able to meet (Hae Sung is an Engineering student, about to move to China and Nora wants to focus on her writing and is about to go off to a writers retreat). The connection stops here — Nora meets a fellow writer at the retreat called Arthur (John Magaro), who soon becomes her husband; Hae Sung and a girl start smiling at each other in a restaurant and it’s implied that this is the start of a relationship.

Time moves on again and Hae Sung decides to finally visit Na Young in New York. This causes consternation for them all as Arthur refuses to behave jealously and works really hard to include and welcome Hae Sung; Nora is unsure of what Hae Sung really wants and who she is, who he is, what the visit represents. When she offers to walk Hae Sung to his Uber at the end of the visit and there’s a two minute wait — will she actually come back?

Slow moving without dragging, there’s so much here about identity (such as when Na Young is rebuked by her parents for taking her sister’s English name and a whole discussion about what’s in a name anyway?) What it is to be the older vs younger sister; what it means to be an immigrant/migrant — the losing and gaining of self; how moving to a new place or country literally creates a past life and a new life, an old and new self; the cultural clash and cultural baggage — what does it really mean to be Korean when you’re Korean-American and encounter a Korean-Korean; even what it means to be a man or ready for marriage? So much of the film comes from what is not said, the suppressed emotions, the hidden, unspoken thoughts, the insecurities, loneliness and anxieties, the wondering and the tension builds (bubbling underneath the surface of this film) as Hae Sung and Nora face each other more and more intently. Will they run off together? Will Nora return to Arthur? Will Nora choose both of them and demand an open relationship? What part does time have to play in all of this? In getting closure, Nora finds herself again and reconnects with her twelve year old self once more.

Intriguingly it is Arthur and Nora who talk through their anxieties and insecurities about their relationship, and whilst I didn’t always believe their emotional connection, it bursts out between them at the end of the movie. Whilst Nora and Hae Sung talk they have less openness and honesty, until the end.

Fabulously it is very much the children’s film here — the younger versions of Nora and Hae Sung are delightful — Seung Ah Moon and Seung Min Yim. Though they’re not in it very much, I loved Ji Hye Yoon and Choi Won-young as Na Young’s super organised accomplished Mum and chaotically creative Dad. And it looks beautiful, full of light (drenched in it) as well as wonderfully used light and shadow contrasts, colour pops and somewhat grainy at points, due to Shabier Kirchner. I love how he focuses the camera on puddling rain to make an emotionally bleak point — it reinforces Hae Sung’s isolation and cultural disconnection.

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Cultures: Arts Reviews and Views by Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....Theatre, Movies, Dance & Art!