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Julia Yang / Gavel Media

"Past Lives" and the Surge of the Debut Feature

Every few years, a film is released whose central artist – be it director, writer, or both – comes seemingly out of nowhere, releasing a project that causes audiences to wonder how it could possibly be their first feature film. Typically light on advertising, modest in budget, and massive in emotional resonance, the human perspective shines through in these passionate endeavors. In 2022, Charlotte Wells’ sobering father-daughter story Aftersun was an incredible critical success, earning its lead actor Paul Mescal an Oscar nod. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter also received Oscar buzz, extending Olivia Colman’s Hollywood hot streak. The latest film to continue this trend, South Korean-Canadian director Celine Song’s Past Lives, is an emotionally humanistic triumph making enormous waves in the filmmaking sphere.

Past Lives is a quiet, humble experience that chronicles the relationship between two characters, Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), from childhood to adulthood. Separated at age 12 by Nora’s family’s immigration from Seoul to the United States, they spend over a decade without contact until their eventual reunion as adults in New York, an encounter that serves as the film’s narrative crux. Filled with feelings of nervousness, angst, and deep-seated regret, the two reflect on their lives, their diverging paths, and their underlying and lasting personal feelings.

The film is full of different aspects of artistic brilliance that meld together seamlessly, but its crowning achievements lie in its writing – specifically in its unflinching human vulnerability – and its lead performances. Greta Lee and Teo Yoo play off one another flawlessly, each of them conveying a complex mix of excitement, anxiety, and sadness toward their relationship and shared history. As Nora is happily married and Hae Sung is in a blossoming relationship in South Korea, both of them understand their personal commitments, yet they still look back on their friendship together as children with fondness – and frankly, some frustration as well. Celine Song’s hand as both a writer and director makes for a searing, beautiful perspective on fate and personal connection; one that is irresistibly relatable and personally relevant. 

All of us, at one point or another in our lives, wish we had done certain things differently, and while the past is set in stone, it’s impossible not to think about how circumstances might be different if we had taken that action or made that decision. At the same time, we have to recognize that we are who we are because of the courses our lives have taken, and we should appreciate life’s journey as it comes. Past Lives understands this dichotomy on a fundamental level, which is the primary reason it’s become beloved by so many so quickly. It’s relatable without pandering, emotionally piercing without being manipulative, and fulfilling without being conventional, and is almost surely destined to become a classic of the romantic genre.