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Dan Webster reviews "Past Lives"


No matter how they end, and even if they never do, first loves tend to arouse emotions that affect every relationship that follows us through life.

That’s a personal sentiment, of course. We’re all different, and maybe you believe the above statement doesn’t apply to you in particular. But I’d bet that it does.

As evidence, I present Past Lives, the film written and directed by first-time filmmaker Celine Song. A Korean-Canadian playwright, screenwriter and now film director, Song tells a story that may be a work of imagination but one that has enough similarity to her own experiences to feel almost autobiographical.

Song’s film has three protagonists. Nora (played by Greta Lee) is a New York playwright, married to Arthur (played by John Magaro) who writes books. Born in Korea and raised in Canada following her family’s immigration, Nora is now a U.S. citizen. Arthur, meanwhile, is both American and Jewish.

Then there is Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo), Nora’s childhood friend, class competitor and the boy she once said—with the full naïve confidence so typical of youth—that she would one day marry.

We learn all this early on, the younger versions of Nora and Hae Sung played by a pair of Korean child actors. We learn also that despite Nora’s feelings for Hae Sung, she recognizes the opportunities that open up for her when her parents opt to immigrate. At least Song lets us see them. No longer bound by what are the presumed limitations of sexist Korean culture, Nora is free to follow her artistic aspirations, all of which involve her writing.

The crux of Past Lives comes in two parts: the first is when Hae Sung, never having gotten over his feelings for Nora, seeks her out 12 years after her departure. She responds to his Facebook request, and they begin to correspond over the Internet. But what starts out innocently enough, gradually turns serious—at least on Hae Sung’s part.

He can’t come to New York, though, and she declines to return to Seoul. Because of this, Nora soon realizes this connection to her past is going nowhere. And, in fact, it’s interfering with her present. And so, she ends things… for a while, she says, though that while ends up lasting another dozen years.

In the meantime, she grows, maturing both as a writer and as a woman. Both parts of herself intersect when, having been invited to a writer’s retreat, she meets Arthur. Soon they are a couple, and soon afterward they are married.

Then, that dozen years later, Hae Sung again enters her life—hers and Arthur’s. It seems he, now working at a job that he doesn’t like and estranged from his girlfriend, decides finally to visit New York. And he wants to see Nora.

The question that filmmaker Song presents to us then is, what happens next? How strong are the connections to our past lives? Our past loves? Can those connections, and the emotions surrounding them, carry enough force to make us reconsider the realities of our present existence? And how strongly are we connected to our present lives anyway?

All of this centers on Nora. Her connection to Arthur, a diffident if loving and supportive man, seems tied to her determination to be the person she has worked so hard to become—the person who, as a child, cried when she didn’t place first in a school exam. The devotion to art the two share connects them in ways that counteract their obvious differences, culturally and physically.

Hae Sung, meanwhile, is much that Arthur is not: tall, handsome and tied emphatically to Nora’s past. But is that enough? Song does give us an answer, although it doesn’t come easily. It may not even lead to a final outcome. Time, after all, doesn’t stand still, and people—over time—do change.

In any event, while Song’s answer applies to all three characters, it’s especially relevant to Nora. Those dreams that are born in first loves may not always prove true, but the power behind them seldom loses its hold on even the strongest of us.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster writes about movies and more for

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