What feels like the consensus choice for the best film of Sundance 2023 is Celine Song’s tender, beautiful, and profound “Past Lives.” Already picked up by A24, it’s one of the few films of this year’s festival that feels like it will still be discussed when people are considering the best of the year many months from now. It’s an understated character study that unfolds across three very distinct periods in the lives of its protagonists, and it works both as an intimate story of these specific people and a deeper commentary on connection and immigration. In other words, it has that startling balance of the specific and the universal. It never feels like a “statement” film, and yet it’s also going to be so easy for so many people who have radically changed their lives to see themselves in it. It’s about what we leave behind when we uproot our lives and start them again somewhere else. What doors do we close when we open new ones? What possibilities are lost? And Song connects these questions to a Korean concept of past lives and future ones, placing her characters in a larger context of fated encounters throughout history. It’s a minor film in its scope and structure, and yet it feels so very major.
“Past Lives” opens in 2000 in South Korea, introducing us to two 12-year-olds named Na Young (Seung-ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung-min Yim). They have that kind of pre-teen friendship that feels like a first love, a tender crush between kids that bonds them. They walk home together, tease each other, play in a sculpture garden, and talk about what’s to come. And then it all ends when Na Young’s parents decide to immigrate to Canada. Before they leave, they change her name to the American one of Nora. In a sense, she literally leaves “Na Young” in Korea, stuck in Hae Sung’s mind as that 12-year-old girl of memory.
Cut to New York City in 2012, when an adult Nora (Greta Lee) finds Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) on social media. The two reconnect and catch-up, but they are separated by thousands of miles. Still, there’s a palpable chemistry between them in these scenes. They just make each other smile in a way that feels organic and true. They fall back into an online relationship as if the last 12 years had never passed, but they can’t commit romantically when it’s impossible to get the right permits to see each other for well over a year. To avoid the heartache, they split again. Twelve years later, Nora is married to a nice guy named Arthur (John Magaro) when Hae Sung comes to visit.