Past Lives (2023) Review: The Oscars Best Picture Award Winner in my Heart

By Chelsea Rodriguez

Throughout the entire award show season, I’ve been begging on my knees for Celine Song’s masterpiece to get the recognition it deserves. Reflecting on the films that released this year, none quite compare to the special simplicity of Past Lives (2023). Ever since I saw it back when it first came out, I’ve been in awe of it. It often crosses my mind and it has solidified itself as my favourite film of 2023. Despite the academy’s refusal to honour its greatness, I’ve decided to sing its praises myself. 


Past Lives follows childhood best friends Nora and Hae Sung who foster a special connection in their youth. The pair share an impactful friendship, but it is cut short when Nora emigrates from South Korea with her family. Later in life, the two reconnect online, and the flame between them reignites, lighting the way for a romance to start. The two begin a dance of fate, the universe pushing them together only to pull them apart again. The film crafts this image of them as two puzzle pieces made to be together, repeatedly mentioning how perfect their love story seems on paper. However, the film challenges the viewer to face the complex workings of life and destiny that are anything but black and white. 


Celine Song has left the world wanting more with this bullseye directorial debut. Already operating like a seasoned filmmaker, it’s clear Song put her heart and soul into this piece. The film finds its power in the quiet moments; the fleeting looks and simple sequences that say so much in so little. It’s a film that makes you feel strong waves of both nostalgia and presence at the same time. Like you’re looking back on loving memories but also like you’re sitting in these moments alongside the characters, sharing every clashing emotion that runs through them. 


Nearly every line of dialogue finds a way to pierce your heart. This is both thanks to the performances of Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro, as well as the poetic yet natural writing of writer-director Celine Song. Song directs the camera with an infinite amount of grace, capturing her characters with tenderness and care. The characters are multidimensional and compelling in their own ways. Representing different parts of the same story, each of them are presented in an unbiased light. No one is villainized, only victimized by the complex emotional warfare of life. They make up the beating heart of the film. 


Past Lives explores the Korean cultural concept of in-yun, a cosmic pull between people who were lovers in a past life. The film explores one of the most crushing aspects of the human condition: regret. Almost anyone can connect to this. No matter what you’ve been through, regret follows every step you take. Although it feels deeply personal to Song herself, the story of Nora and Hae Sung offers a vessel through which you can reflect on your own experiences; all the versions of yourself you left behind and the lives you passed up in order to be where you are now. It brings you through the ringer, doubting every decision, sacrifice, and leap of faith you’ve taken in your life as you watch the twists and turns the characters take in their own. 


The film not only covers this idea of intertwining forces of destiny and choice from the perspective of relationships, but also considers how this concept relates to the immigrant experience. Nora is an honest depiction of being caught in between two places, two cultures. Nora’s longing and subtle guilt over suppressing her Korean self is relatable to many and portrays another way the choices of ourselves and others can change who we are and the lives we lead. 


Past Lives is a masterclass in empathetic storytelling that beautifully reflects the parts of being human that are difficult to put into words. You’ll find yourself holding onto every piece of wisdom it has to offer. Its beauty lies in its bittersweetness. The film showcases the beauty in both mourning what could have been, but also celebrating what is. It’s this sentiment that makes this film shred my heart to pieces, but also put it back together in a way. 

Go watch it. Please.

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