Celine Song’s Past Lives (2023) is a beautiful film, an intimate, quiet story that feels bigger than its premise. In Seoul, South Korea, two twelve-year-olds—Nora and Hae Sung—briefly become childhood sweethearts, their friendship severed when young Nora and her family emigrate to Canada. A dozen years later, Nora (Greta Lee) is a literature major in New York City when she’s contacted on Facebook by Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who hasn’t forgotten his childhood playmate. The two become long-distance friends, Skyping at odd hours of the day as they reconnect…until it becomes apparent they’re falling for each other. It’s a doomed situation, as neither can veer from their career paths, and vast distances make an actual romance impossible. Mutually, they agree to stop “seeing” each other online to make it easier on themselves. But their connection never quite fades, setting up one final meeting between them, after twelve more years have passed, when Hae Sung comes to Manhattan for a visit.
Past Lives is a moving romance between two potential soulmates whose stars cross, but incompletely—the one who got away, both romantically and geographically. It sings on beautiful performances from Lee and Yoo, whose opposites-attract chemistry—Nora outgoing, multilingual, and ambitious and Hae Sung staid, introverted, and conventional—is undeniable. It builds convincingly and culminates with real sparks in a third act that feature a great, crucial supporting turn from John Magaro. Throughout, the romance grows with low-key modesty, casting its spell with such subtlety that when the third act finally weaves everything together, the effect—especially in its haunting final scenes—is stunning.