Why is Past Lives a Film Festival Favourite? | TheReviewGeek Analyses

Why is Past Lives a Film Festival Favourite

There have been several global productions over the years that hit all the right notes and became an instant success. And no, we don’t mean the conventional, commercial blockbusters but indie films that have finally been successfully stealing the spotlight, as they should. And Past Lives is one such film that a majority has dubbed as the best 2023 film to make the rounds in the film festival circuit.

If you are a cinephile, you must have heard of the America-Korean movie Past Lives which has been making a lot of buzz at recent international film festivals. It spans decades and explores some deep topics like unrequited love, human relations and the struggles of an immigrant. But what is it exactly that has caught the eye of every cinema-goer and critic who just cannot stop singing its praises? Well, it is time to analyse and dissect this film festival favourite!

Past Lives is a romantic drama in which close friends Hae-sung and Na-young lose touch when the latter moves to the US and changes her name to Nora. Years later, she learns that Hae-sung has been searching for her and they connect via email and Skype. But the long distance does not work out and they part ways. Now happily married to a colleague called Arthur, Nora is shocked when she learns that Hae-sung has broken up with his girlfriend and is coming to New York.

past lives


Celine Song makes the ‘other’, the oriental and the exotic the norm and in turn piques the interest of viewers who may have no prior knowledge of the South Korean culture. Her usage of a single theme such as ‘inyeon’ is such a power move that every scene will have viewers overanalysing to understand how it is linked to the idea of fate. It starts off as a line when Nora hits on Arthur. For him, the meaning stops there, an inside joke for the couple.

But when Hae-sung’s presence invades their relationship, it becomes evident just how important the idea of inyeon is. Inyeon brings meaning to every interaction we ever have in our lives as the basic concept is that the current connection between two people is the result of several interactions in their past lives. And so, on a second viewing, it is visible in every moment that Nora is talking to Hae-sung or Arthur.

past lives

Blocking And Eye Contact

This Korean understanding of destiny and fate makes us appreciate the tiny details in the film even more as you can see it in play from the very first scene of the film. Hae-sung, Nora and Arthur are sitting at a bar and chatting and another couple sitting opposite them try to guess the relationship between the three. Nora is sitting closer to Arthur but her back is towards him as she faces Hae-sung. Arthur’s attention flits between them and his drink while Hae-sung’s eyes are completely on Nora.

As the camera zooms in on Nora, Hae-sung is the first to be cut out of the frame while Arthur is visible for a few more seconds. This creates tension between the trio despite them being confident in their stance. Similar scenes are peppered throughout the film, even when it is just Nora and Hae-sung. He constantly gives her his attention while she nervously flits between looking at him to looking away when she realises he still has feelings for her.

But when they walk around New York, Hae-sung is polite and formal, in line with someone who has grown up in a country where formality is a must. But for Nora, she unknowingly finds comfort in him, initiating their hug, leading him and trying to make him feel comfortable.

Her feelings for him bubble up but she pushes them down as her feelings for Arthur are stronger. This is noticeable when they talk in bed about Arthur’s insecurity or when she is more at ease when holding eye contact with him. When they are together, they also stand close to each other, there is no negative space, and they simply fill the frame.

But when Hae-sung and Nora are together, there is space between them, literally. It is as if Hae-sung is trying to reach her but she is just beyond his grasp. Even when they are close together in the subway with their hands almost touching, they are separated by a pole. As if no matter what they do, they cannot get close.

past lives

Final Tears

However, this dynamic changes in the penultimate scene. As Nora walks him to his taxi, Hae-sung is a step ahead and while he looks back at Nora, he doesn’t reduce his pace. It is as if he has found his closure and is moving on while she finally realises what it is that she has lost. That minute of silence, when they turn their bodies towards each other and stay in silence, has different meanings for both of them.

Hae-sung is sad of what he has lost but there is still a sense of peace. As for Nora, she is struggling with her feelings as they whip about, just like her dress swaying in the breeze. And this time, it is him initiating the hug, wishing her farewell. The childhood flashback, their soft smile as they hold back tears, is a parallel to Nora breaking up with him decades ago.

Hae-sung has moved on, believing that it is all part of inyeon and that in their next life, they will have what they couldn’t in the present. But Nora, who has lost touch with her Korean beliefs, cannot find solace in the idea of inyeon because she doesn’t regret the connections she has made in her present life.

She cries over the Na-young she could have been, the road not taken as curiosity gets the better of her, while she walks back from the left side of the street to the right – from the past to her present with Arthur. It has never been about Arthur or choosing between the two men which Song confirms, but a farewell to Nora’s past in which her memories of Hae-sung belong.

While there have been several global films garnering attention this year, it is this very specific oriental philosophy in Past Lives that makes it a new and refreshing watch with tons of analysis on what the director’s intentions are.

Celine Song goes above and beyond to make a deeply philosophical film with the use of a popular trope — love triangles to make a statement on regrets and moving forward. And so unpacking her intentions by peeling off the layers is what makes Past Lives an engaging and exciting experience, a favourite amongst critics, students and film buffs.

What do you think? Have you watched Past Lives? What part struck you the most? Let us know in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Why is Past Lives a Film Festival Favourite? | TheReviewGeek Analyses”

  1. it was super boring, I tried to watch it multiple times, failing miserably. Even though I love the male lead actor. But the whole presentation is so disengaging.

  2. Loved the analysis! Loved the movie too! Want more such features from TRG 🙂 great writing

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