By Jess Fenton
10th June 2023

Many believe that to be a good writer, you must write what you know. Knowing is one thing; being is another. It takes a brave person to write their most vulnerable selves and moments. It takes an even braver person to then film them and project them onto a cinema screen for the world to see, and judge. But if this were me, I'd cast the gorgeous and spectacular Greta Lee to play me too.

Celine Song has made a beautiful art-imitating-life directorial debut in 'Past Lives'. It's the stripped-back, reality-based and painfully realistic version of 'Sliding Doors'. All those "what if" moments we have in life - what if one of them knocks on your door and asks "What gives?" - or in the case of 'Past Lives', leaves a Facebook message.


It's 2000 in Seoul, Korea. Na Young is upset that she's come second in her class, for the first time, to her friend Hae Sung, while he tries to comfort her. Back at home Na Young's parents are packing up their apartment and preparing to immigrate to Canada, encouraging Na Young and her sister to chose their new Western names. Wanting to give her daughter happy memories from Korea, Na Young's mother organises a date with Hae Sung, upon learning of her daughter's crush and desire to marry him one day. Fast forward 12 years (2012) and Na Young, now Nora (Greta Lee, Netflix's 'Russian Doll'), is living in New York perusing her dreams of becoming a playwright when she discovers that her childhood love Hae Sung (Teo Yoo, 'The Window') has tried to track her down after all these years apart. They quickly reconnect through frequent Skype calls but distracted by their distance and growing feelings Nora makes the hard decision to cut ties and focus on her ambitions. Another 12 years pass and the pair are finally in the same city at the same time. But too much time has passed, too much life has been lived, and all that's left is to reminisce on what could have been.

'Past Lives' speaks volumes with so little, and it's a marvel.

The woman who was raised on Hollywood rom-coms wanted to shake the screen (in my sold-out session) begging the characters to get deeper, say more, profess more, and where were the damn grand gestures!? But the cinefile in me knew there was exquisite beauty in what wasn't said, in what wasn't done, in just a glance or a simple facial expression, in when they didn't touch or kiss. 'Past Lives' speaks volumes with so little, and it's a marvel. Filmmaker Celine Song comes from a theatre background, and as a playwright knows how to accomplish a lot with a little - and it works. She showcases Seoul and New York in beautiful new ways, not unappreciated when one of them is the most photographed city in the world. It's refreshing to see an American film that doesn't treat this type of story as overwrought or tragic. 'Past Lives' accepts that people are capable of having roots and wings, and that there is beauty and happiness within loss and sadness.

To be perfectly trite and cliché and happily so - don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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RELATEDARGYLLEThe bigger the spy, the worse the film
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