in Oscars Fortnight

Past Lives (2023)

The 96th Academy Awards (2024)

What do Casablanca, Titanic, Brokeback Mountain, Atonement and Call Me By Your Name, all have in common? They all were nominated for Best Picture, of course! But beyond that, they’re all tragic romances about missed connections. The right people meeting at the wrong time. This year’s Past Lives participates in that proud tradition but very much in a cool, In the Mood for Love slow, unspoken way. Will that be enough to bring first time writer-director Celine Song Oscar gold in a few weeks? Probably not but it’s nice to dream.

Past Lives is about the relationship between Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) when they are 12, 24, and 36 years old. As kids living in Seoul, they tease each other about being the top of their class and get to go on a “date” arranged by Nora’s mom before their family emigrates to Canada. This is the grand dividing line in their lives, as Nora eventually settles in New York City while Hae Sung remains in South Korea. In their twenties, Nora reconnects with Hae Sung after finding out he was looking for her online. There’s something still there between them, so they start frequently video calling each other. Then, in their thirties, Hae Sung finally comes to meet Nora in her new home of New York City, where she lives with her husband, Arthur (indie darling John Magaro). It’s pretty easy to guess Hae Sung’s intentions, but is it too little too late?

One thing about Past Lives: it feels very contemporary. This long-distance love story spans 24 years which pretty much encompasses the entire time it could have happened, complete with Facebook messages and Skype calls. Before this it was what, expensive phone calls and actual hand-written letters? Like in World War II movies? No thanks. Plus it’s willingness to let its characters exist in a love triangle that’s friendly and understanding on all sides? That’s pretty 21st Century (although it does still wring some drama out of heteronormativity, baby steps). And then there’s all the talk of different timelines and alternate lives? Sure sounds like the Korean concept of In-Yun is not that far off from the comic book wibbly wobbly, timey wimey multiverse shenanigans we all love to see at the theater every week.

But seriously, I feel like what makes Past Lives memorable to me is the maturity and complexity of its characters. Arthur’s easy – he even calls out in the movie that he should be the villain of Nora and Hae Sung’s story, but he’s not. He’s adorable. Hae Sung, on the other hand, should be the hero but he’s too timid take the leap. He spends a lot of time thinking about what could have been (and what still could be) and not nearly enough time trying to make things happen. But, to be fair, I think his uncertainty is founded in credible concerns. And Nora, bless her heart, loves Hae Sung but not romantically. She misses the place she grew up, the culture she feels removed from having lived two thirds of her life away from it. Hae Sung represents that to Nora. Which sure is a confusing feeling for both of them! Man, that sucks!

In conclusion, awards are stupid and probably shouldn’t exist!