Greata Lee as Nora Moon
"Greata Lee as Nora Moon," Past Lives, directed by Celine Song, 2023, (A24)

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Film Summary

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Hae Sung and Nora Moon (nee Na Young) have known each other for 24 years – since they were twelve. However, they were separated when they were twelve, when Nora’s parents immigrated to Canada. Years went by, and since Nora’s dad is a filmmaker, Hae hoped by sending a message on his page, he could reconnect with her, and he did. But this was a different person. Na Young wasn’t dead, but Nora Moon was very much alive. Trying to reconcile those two people was hard, as well as maintaining a long-distance situationship where there were routines but no titles.

And, with Nora trying to honor her parents’ journey and the one she was on as an individual, as she realized neither she nor Hae Sung were willing to make the sacrifices required, she decided to focus on herself, leading her to meet her eventual husband, Arthur.

Yet, with there being 12 years since reconnecting, then 12 years since Nora cut communication, you’d think whatever feelings there were would die, but that’s not the case, and with Hae Sung visiting, there is a recognition both need a sense of closure, an end to the conversation they keep leaving on an ellipsis and to handle the full depth of the what if without dishonoring their partners or who they are.

Things To Note

Why Is “Past Lives” Rated PG-13

  • Dialog: cursing throughout
  • Violence: none
  • Sexual Content: none
  • Miscellaneous: depiction of smoking and drinking

Collected Quote(s)

You dream in a language I don’t understand.
— Arthur

If you leave something behind, you gain something too.
— Nora’s Mother

Character Descriptions

Please Note: This character guide is not an exhaustive list of every cast member, and character descriptions may contain what can be considered spoilers.

Hae Sung

Hae Sung was Nora’s rival when they were kids and also her childhood crush. Though, with her leaving not too long after their first date, he was the one who ended up crushed and thinking about her for the next 24 years of his life. He thought about her in college, with many other women around, and even in a relationship with a woman, as an adult. There was just something about Nora and how they would repeatedly end things that made it questionable if he should stop or see what was happening as a pause.

Nora Moon

Nora Moon, born Na Young, is the daughter of a filmmaker and artist, and as an adult, she became a playwriter. One who, between growing up in Korea, Canada, and now settling in New York City, has traveled a notable part of the world and has a sort of push and pull with the various cultures she has adapted to. Thus making Hae Sung’s draw beyond the familiarity of his person but also of a place she has long left behind.

  • The Actor Is Also Known For: Stella Bak in “The Morning Show,” Maxine in “Russian Doll,” and Lyla in “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.”

Arthur

Arthur is Nora’s husband, and, like Nora, he is a writer. Someone she met through a writer’s retreat and for all the time and energy it took for Nora and Hae Sung to communicate, things moved quickly with Arthur. Granted, pressing things like citizenship, rent, and bills played a role, but while comfortable, they still are in love.

Review

Our Rating: Positive (Worth Seeing)

Notable Performances or Moments

The Feeling Of Being Seen & The Warmth Of Vulnerability

There is something there whenever Nora and Hae Sung hold each other’s sight. It goes beyond chemistry or the assumption of love; it is the feeling of being seen but having no desire to look away. For there is a vulnerability in looking into another person’s eyes. That is why some cultures see it as disrespectful and others as a necessary way to prove your attention, and most animals see it as a form of establishing dominance.

Which is why when Nora and Hae hold space for one another, it is intense. We see the competition from when they were children, the wrestling of feelings between them, and the desire to remain in control, yet still appear open, vulnerable, a possibility, and how it leaves both frustrated and sometimes confused. Yet, with this sense of openness comes something beyond a friendship but not a traditional soul mate.

And beyond the looks is the warmth of someone being that close. Here you are, partly numb because you are overworked, fed with what you can get your hands on, yet rarely full in a satisfying way, then on top of that, for Nora, you are an immigrant. You have adjusted to a different way of life and know the culture and words, yet you and the location still feel foreign. Then, on the flip side, life is so ordinary for Hae that he talks like he is a robot on a conveyor belt, even if he doesn’t work in a factory.

Yet, when they see each other for the first time in 24 years, there is that warmth. That familiar feeling of what it means to be close to another person and not be uncomfortable, like when you sit next to someone on public transit and know you are in their space because you feel their body heat. What we see is what both crave. Nora, while she still talks to her parents, there is a part of Korea only Hae Sung can provide her, and from what it seems, Nora provides memories of a happier time for Hae Sung when his life wasn’t on auto-pilot. So at first, that warmth is nostalgia, but then as they look into each other’s eyes, they are reminded of all the possibilities and whether what brings them together is fate or just being unable to let go.

On The Fence

The Complication of Arthur’s Existence

In the film, there is a reference to yi Yun, or perhaps yuan fen, the idea that people are connected, and after many lives where you go from brushing up against one another, being friends, family, maybe lovers, you are bound in a way. And watching Nora and Hae repeatedly reconnect even draws thoughts of the Chinese theory regarding a red string connecting two people, and every time Hae and Nora reconnect, it is because one plucked the string to see if the other is there, for there is this eternal longing.

That is what makes Arthur’s existence in this film complicated. Nora’s relationship with Arthur is littered with conveniences that may help you understand not all love is dependent on feelings. They met on a writing retreat, had sex because they were single, moved in together for expenses, and got married so she could get a green card. These aren’t terrible reasons to be together or love someone, but it does deconstruct the idea of what a relationship could or should be.

Which makes Hae Sung, the man who gives Nora a sense of home, makes her feel aware of who she is, who she was, and what she wants to be feel intense. Not even in a grandeur way but what you want and expect when it comes to love. To live that fantasy of having someone know you for years, see you at your worse, and when your dreams couldn’t be fathomed, they still stuck by you.

And it is with Hae’s return and Arthur and Nora written damn near like roommates with an affection for each other that leaves you torn about how this ends. Never mind how Arthur handles things with what can feel like dry humor at best but, at worse, a man who is thankfully comfortable in his relationship, even though there are signs he shouldn’t be.

It Lacks A End Goal And Sense Of Building Up To One

What some may struggle with when it comes to “Past Lives” is that nothing is pressing. The only villain really is time and fate. While Arthur can be seen as a foil, because he is sweet and Nora is at least content with him, it’s hard to question if Hae Sung can present enough, or anything, for this to end up with Arthur’s heartbroken. And due to that, you’re left wondering, beyond the exploration of the relatable “What If?” what is the end goal of this film?

Yes, the writing, performances, dry humor, and thoughts triggered above are worth noting – highlighting even. But, unfortunately, this is one of those films that don’t necessarily present a definitive end or, in the lead-up to the ending, gives you signs we are building up to anything. Instead, like Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship, you just get a series of ellipsis that leave you to wonder, “Is this it?”

Which makes the ending, while understandable, frustrating, for there is still a lingering question of “Will they or won’t they?” It just pushes you to wonder, as complicated as fate is, should this be seen as yet another ellipsis regarding Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship, in which only when one dies can there be a definitive answer – at least for this lifetime.

General Information

Director(s) Celine Song
Screenplay By Celine Song
Based On N/A
Date Released (In Theaters) June 2, 2023
Genre(s) Drama, Romance, Non-English (Korean)
Film Length 1 Hour 46 Minutes
Content Rating Rated PG-13
Noted Characters and Cast
Nora Greta Lee
Hae Sung Teo Yoo
Arthur John Magaro

Recommendations

If you like this movie, we recommend:

  1. The Coast Starlight
  2. The Hows of Us
  3. Stay The Night

You can also check out our movies page for more recommendations and find our latest movie reviews.

FAQs

Why Is the Film Called “Past Lives?”

It reflects Nora’s past lives from living in Korea, her life before Arthur, and the different chapters that have led up to now.

How Was The Twist(s) and Ending?

There is no twist, and the ending is a bit of an ellipsis because Nora and Hae Sung are only in their 30s, and it seems neither will forever cut off contact with the other.

Is There A Mid-Credit or Post Credits Scene?

No, there isn’t a mid-credit or post-credits scene.

Greata Lee as Nora Moon
Past Lives (2023) – Movie Review and Summary (with Spoilers)
Overall
While “Past Lives” lacks what can feel like a definitive ending, there is no question the journey it takes you on will leave you reflective and contemplative about the opportunities you’ve had or missed.
Highlights
The Feeling Of Being Seen & The Warmth Of Vulnerability
Disputable
The Complication of Arthur’s Existence
It Lacks A End Goal And Sense Of Building Up To One
80

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