Oscar Watch 2023: Past Lives


Over the past year or two, Flixist hasn’t been as prolific as it once was. We were never a massive site rolling in money, but that funding has mostly dried up. As a result, reviews, features, interviews, and general news have slowed down considerably. This intro isn’t a call to arms to fund us, but a small explanation for why there simply hasn’t been as much content lately. It’s basically the reason we weren’t able to watch a majority of 2023’s Oscar nominees and why there wasn’t a Golden Cages this year.

So, with some free time on my hands and a desire to actually see if the Academy was on the money with its nominations, I’ve decided to start a temporary feature where I’ll be going through each of the “Best Picture” nominees to see what I think of them. It’s clearly too late for a regular review (though we do have some reviews for the nominees), but with a ton of time having passed since their initial releases, I can dig into more spoilerific territory to examine each film’s message.

First up on the docket is Past Lives, a film I had wanted to see back in June, but wasn’t able to get around to. Flixist’s own Sophia Schrock wrote in their review, “While I generally enjoyed Past Lives for its melancholy emotions and sun-drenched visuals, I found it hard to completely submerse myself in the story. We see enough of Nora to relate to her feelings and sympathize with her decisions, but a lot of the film didn’t have the tension I was expecting.” Uh… I don’t agree, haha.

Past Lives

© A24

I might be a bit biased here as I’ve watched a considerable number of Asian films. Be it action films, dramas, romantic comedies, etc, I’ve been big into Asian cinema for most of my life. I primarily watch Hong Kong pictures, but I’ve seen Korean ones and a Korean action/drama was one of my favorite films last year – The Childe. So, when I say Past Lives really hit me, it could be that I gelled with its more foreign sensibilities to a greater degree than Sophia.

Whatever the reason, I was legitimately blown away by Past Lives. The most talked about sequence of the film, the ending walk Nora makes with Hae Sung to his Uber, stuck in my mind for days after. I cried right at the same moment Nora did, feeling as if I had gone on the same emotional journey she did. It’s a testament to Celine Song’s writing and direction that a film with no antagonists can manage to create a palpable sense of drama out of what is an “impossible” situation.

I don’t say impossible to mean something like Past Lives couldn’t happen. If you’ve read any kind of criticism or personal anecdotes over the last decade online, you’ve likely read the term “diaspora” get used. Hundreds of millions of immigrants experience a form of diaspora on a daily basis, unable to fit in with their original homeland or their newfound residence. It’s more that the scenario presented in the film feels like a situation where there is no right answer.

© A24

Celine Song based a good deal of Past Lives on her own experiences as a Korean-American. In some press material released by distributor A24, Song recounts a situation not unlike what opens the film. She was at a bar in NYC sitting with her husband and talking to her childhood sweetheart from Korea. She states, “I was sitting there between these two men who I know love me in different ways, in two different languages and two different cultures. And I’m the only reason why these two men are even talking to each other.”

To her, it felt like she was crossing some alternate dimension and bringing the past and future together, if only for a brief moment. Past Lives doesn’t suddenly become like Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, but the film uses this chance encounter as a springboard for taking a look at how our current lives are forged by our encounters in the past. It also ends with a sense of validation for its protagonist that her past self was loved when she felt so lost in a new country.

The film plays out over the course of 24 years, focusing on the life of Nora Moon (Greta Lee) and her childhood crush Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). Starting in Korea, Na Young -Nora’s name before immigrating- is a fairly assertive young girl who puts a lot of pressure on herself to perform well. Seen crying about coming in second for test scores to Hae Sung, the two confide in each other before saying goodnight. The next day, Na Young’s mother is preparing papers for their eventual immigration to Canada (another element taken from Song’s life) and she asks Na about who she likes in school. Obviously, Hae Sung comes up.

© A24

At the end of the first act, Na Young’s mother arranges a playdate between Na Young and Hae Sung, and the two spend one of their last days together on a playground having fun. There’s an overwhelming sense of bittersweet sadness from the audience as we’re already aware of what is to come. These children are seen in their purest forms, happy to simply exist and be spending time with each other. They aren’t aware that their lives are about to take a dramatic turn.

Hae Sung finds out the next day in class that Na Young is moving away and he becomes a bit despondent. He clearly doesn’t know how to deal with these emotions, but it’s not even something he can change. Na Young’s parents have made the decision and she’ll be gone soon. In their final encounter, the two take different paths after bidding farewell and the film flashes forward 12 years. Now, Na Young has changed her name to Nora (something that was established in the prior act) and she’s living in NYC.

Speaking on the phone to her mother, Nora starts to get a bit nostalgic for her days in Korea and happens to look up Hae Sung. Funnily enough, Hae Sung was doing the same. Nora’s father was a film director back in their homeland, so Hae Sung had gone to his Facebook page in an attempt to reach out. While this middle section is maybe the weakest part of the movie due to the two communicating via computer screens, we get to see Nora and Hae Sung relive some of their childhood memories and even reconnect in a way that feels increasingly romantic.

© A24

This is when Past Lives starts to really delve into the specifically Korean-American experience of its protagonist. You could write a very similar story about two characters in the same country losing contact, but it wouldn’t hit with the same specificity that this narrative does. Star-crossed lovers with a shared experience, yet in totally different positions.

After talking for an undisclosed period of time (likely the course of a few weeks), Nora and Hae Sung are discussing plans to meet each other before Nora abruptly cuts it off. It might seem rash, but Nora is stuck between her Korean past and her American future. Nora likes where her life seems to be heading and while she loves and appreciates Hae Sung, she hasn’t seen him for 12 years. Why should she give up on her current path just to reconnect with him? Hae Sung takes the news visibly well, but the lighting and framing of the scene show that he’s distraught. He likely feels he just blew his only chance at love.

It’s a tough scenario for anyone to be in. The self-reflection doesn’t start yet, but has Nora made the right choice? Did Hae Sung even accomplish anything by reaching out? Both likely feel there is no way to reconcile these feelings, so they go their separate ways with the idea that they’ll reconnect soon… except, soon doesn’t come for another 12 years.

© A24

Before one last time jump, we get to see Nora and Hae Sung embarking on their lives after having severed ties with each other. Whether it was immediately following that Skype call or days/weeks later is irrelevant. The two are living in drastically different worlds and happen to meet completely different partners. Nora is attending a writing retreat and she runs into Arthur (John Magaro). They spend the entire night talking to each other and Nora explains the Korean concept of “inyeon.”

In the first major example of how Nora has seemingly left her Korean identity behind, she notes how inyeon is similar to fate, with the word translating roughly to “providence of fate.” It’s an incredibly romantic-sounding philosophy, but Nora ends the explanation with, “It’s just something Koreans say to seduce someone.” She doesn’t buy into the idea completely.

Hae Sung, meanwhile, is much quieter about his current situation. He still spends time with his friends and hasn’t diverged from his plan to visit China on a Mandarin language exchange program, but he’s not out there living life to the fullest or partying to forget Nora. It’s sad how hurt he seems to be, but a chance encounter at a restaurant sees him meet a woman. Then 12 more years go by.

© A24

In the present day where the majority of the film unfolds, we catch up with Nora and Arthur in NYC. They are both not only successful playwrights but also married and enjoying life. Hae Sung, meanwhile, is still in Korea and has recently separated from his girlfriend. Under the guise of a vacation, he heads to NYC and catches up with Nora, the two reuniting in person for the first time since their childhood days. What unfolds is seemingly innocent, but bubbles with sexual tension and repressed emotions in the vein of a K-drama.

From here, Past Lives is entirely about Nora’s struggle with her two identities. She sees so much of the life she left behind in Hae Sung, but her current self lies in Arthur. Hae Sung represents a lot of qualities that she finds attractive, but he is distinctly Korean in his outlook and approach to life. Arthur has some insecurities that can feel off-putting or controlling, but the man just wants to learn more about his wife and let her make decisions for herself.

In what might be my favorite scene of the film, after Nora spends her first day with Hae Sung and returns home, she is in bed with Arthur discussing some of what happened. Arthur then reveals to Nora that she speaks in her sleep from time to time, but is speaking in Korean. He states, “You dream in a language I can’t understand. It’s like there’s this whole place inside of you I can’t go.”

© A24

That struck me personally, though not for the same reason as Arthur. Communication is central to how humans interact and it can often feel as if we aren’t getting our message across to one another. Even this piece of writing on a film I love doesn’t quite convey what I feel inside. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to converse with someone you love when their past was formed in an entirely different world.

The next day, Nora has Arthur and Hae Sung meet, and the three spend time at a bar. While not intending to, Nora winds up conversing with Hae Sung in Korean for the majority of the outing where Hae Sung confesses his love. It’s not overly dramatic or anything, but he notes that he didn’t believe it would hurt so much to see Nora with her husband.

When Nora leaves to use the restroom, Hae Sung attempts to communicate with Arthur in his limited English, and the two start to get a better understanding of where they stand. Arthur might be insecure, but he understands that his wife needs to close this chapter of her life. He doesn’t hold anything against Hae Sung and the two understand that their love of Nora is what brought them together. How lucky is she to have two men that treat her with love and respect?

© A24

Then there is the ending of the film, which cuts like a knife straight to the bone. It’s a microcosm of everything that Past Lives is trying to get across to the audience. Nora walks Hae Sung to his Uber in what is likely to be the last time they ever meet. The two wait together in a painstaking single shot that lasts just two minutes before bidding farewell to each other. Hae Sung once again recounts the idea of inyeon and ponders if this current moment is one of the past lives he and Nora will have. He understands they aren’t meant to be, but maybe 8,000 more lives in the future, will finally have their time.

Nora then walks back to Arthur and begins to sob in his arms. It’s a cathartic release not just because it caps off an incredibly emotional scene, but because Nora gets to reveal a more vulnerable side to Arthur. She’s likely had to put up walls because of her immigrant lifestyle but is finally able to close a specific chapter in her life and let everything out. Arthur gets to see that childhood version of Nora he never knew and she gets to understand that she was loved as a child. It’s bittersweet and heartbreaking at the same time.

There are certainly aspects of the film that feel maybe too romanticized and the film isn’t strictly realistic, but that doesn’t matter. Film, much like any artistic medium, isn’t about presenting strictly truth, but cutting to the emotional core. Past Lives connected with so many filmgoers because it struck a chord that felt human. As I said, despite having no antagonistic forces, the film has a heightened sense of drama that permeates throughout the story. That’s impressive as hell.

It’s too early for me to say if Past Lives is my favorite film from 2023, but it certainly comes close to the top of the list. I can only hope the other nominees live up to the expectations set here.

Peter Glagowski
Peter is an aspiring writer with a passion for gaming and fitness. If you can't find him in front of a game, you'll most likely find him pumping iron.