Film Reviews

We Regret to Inform You that PAST LIVES Is Not Good


The six-month buffer period of nonstop adoration ends today: the haters have arrived. Rather than send the other into the alligator pit to fend for themselves, Kevin Cookman and Katarina Docalovich teamed up to explain why the most beloved film of 2023 didn’t hit the sweet spot.

Kevin Cookman: Listen, Kat, this is not an enviable situation we’re in. Let’s just be out in the open with it, even though we’re about to shit on an independent drama that, by the grace of God, received a wide theatrical release: we are both not fans of the Sundance darling, A24 stalwart, and, for some reason, the 2024 Best Picture frontrunner—

Katarina Docalovich: That’s a joke, right?

KC: Not really. Celine Song’s PAST LIVES, which is now in its nationwide release, meaning anyone reading this will likely be able to rent it digitally within the next few weeks if they haven’t already, succumbed to the hype. People love this movie. People are not only loving this movie, they are getting destroyed by this movie. So I just want to ask you off the top, why are you a bad person?

KD: Do you want to go through all 20 of my journals? I can start at the beginning.

KC: We can start at the 14th volume, get the gist from there.

KD: All the reasons I hate myself and why all my relationships have failed, my relationship with my parents… Probably I’m not a good person because I’m not a Korean immigrant. I also don’t have an MFA, so I’m especially not a good person.

KC: Fat L.

KD: I would like to quote Letterboxd user LimpyBill who said “And as someone who enjoys drama I also liked that she never struggled at any point or committed a single mistake. This is why I go to the movies: to watch people with MFAs realize that you should never even try to change anything about yourself.” Everyone in PAST LIVES is such a good person who does the right thing all the time.

KC: To zoom out for a moment, PAST LIVES is the debut film by Celine Song, a playwright based in New York City who previously immigrated to Canada from Korea, and this is a film sort of about herself and her childhood sweetie-pie who vacations in her neck of the woods one weekend and potentially disrupts her comfy life, which, again, according to her interviews, is apparently a real thing that happened.

KD: Is her husband actually Jewish?

KC: I’m not sure, but I do know that he’s the “Potion Seller” guy.

KD: [typing] Is… Celine Song’s husband… Jewish…

KC: Regardless of his IRL Judaism, this is also a movie about that husband getting cucked harder than almost any Jewish husband has ever been cucked.

KD: And he was really happy about it.

KC: Almost more fulfilled than she was interacting with her childhood love after decades apart. Did you truly believe that this one date they had as kids that their parents set up for them was a strong basis for 24 years of pining?

KD: The film certainly plays it as though that day was the one memory they share together.

KC: We’re told that they’ve been friends for years, but you’d be hard-pressed to tell. I’m imagining being 21 in college and the conditions that would lead me to yearn for the girl I was holding hands with at nine and the rationale is not computing whatsoever.

KD: I was supposed to believe that Nora was reading Macbeth at Columbia? There’s a cute moment as kids where they’re bickering over grades, and it’s the only seed of chemistry you can hold onto as they age, but… Grades, that’s it.

KC: It falls back onto what ultimately tears them apart, which is a separation of ambition. He’s sticking to the blueprint of Korean citizenship, while she’s going to girlboss in The Big Apple. When Celine Song’s stand-in, Nora, is established in the U.S. with a husband and a flourishing theatre career, the film starts reeking of a pro-diaspora sentiment. Everything she wanted to achieve basically comes true; sure, she’s been dissuaded from her dreams of winning a Nobel Prize, but the next best thing in believable grasp is a Tony. Boo-hoo, y’know? You can move to America and win!

KD: Being an immigrant writer in New York is actually pretty fucking easy.

Past Lives Movie Couple

KC: There’s a whole conversation at the bar between the three main characters about overtime pay and how there’s none of it in Korea, but the conversation sways in such a way that the two American characters keep making it seem like overtime pay is everywhere in the U.S. Really, overtime pay is the line in the sand you draw between these countries? And you’re going to put the United States, nay, North America, on a pedestal when ADP surveys show that workers now put in an average of nine hours of unpaid overtime per week?

KD: You know how overtime pay works when you’re a writer, you write for so long that the checks start getting automatically sent in. That’s how you afford your East Village brownstone. Even the immigration itself is just a shot of Nora’s family walking past squeaky-clean, lineless security in a Canadian airport. I work with so many people who are working on getting their papers and it’s insanely difficult.

KC: But it’s more difficult to get over the guy that you went on a date with once when you were  nine and then Skyped a few times in college.

KD: She seemed pretty over it! There’s no question of whether she should’ve stayed with Hae Sung because we’re presented with an incredibly content life in New York that she chose with her cucked husband—their marriage has, conveniently, no problems! For a moment, the film makes you think they got married too young so that Nora could get her green card, and maybe that matrimony of utility will be a primary source of conflict, but that’s neither here nor there.

KC: Nora and Hae Sung are two unbelievable people, and unfortunately the most believable human in this entire equation is the white guy. For some reason, the husband is the most carefully written, receives the most interiority, and is blessed with a self-defining bedside monologue wherein he accesses the subconscious of his character. And then our two main characters are cyphers. I’ll give Hae Sung more credit, because even if the film doesn’t care much for his potential selfishness, there’s this idea that he’s only chasing Nora because she might be the final loose thread in his dissatisfied existence that might give him purpose. She’s the final penny at the bottom of a picked-over fountain, but then the ending plays it all so traditionally romantic, he gets an unironic Fabio-esque send-off.

KD: His personal life is really vague in the same way that her life is really vague. She’s a writer who writes plays. What are those plays about? Does she like being a writer? Are her plays informed by her immigration status, or by her filmmaker father’s reputation as an artist of his own right? Is her creative life infringing on her romantic pursuits? Are the temptations of extramarital pursuits actual desires or is it material for her art? Meanwhile, he’s just an engineer that dates from time to time.

KC: I liked his friend group, I loved that they stuck to their bar routine for over a decade. That was very moving.

KD: We know that he has friends but I have no idea what is going on in his head.

Past Lives Movie

KC: Back to the topic of you being a bad person, do you not like movies where people talk? Do you hate movies about straight people longing for one another? Clearly there’s a major malfunction here if you’re trashing on PAST LIVES.

KD: I don’t think this is a movie for real yearners. You’re all faking it. We’re… Not going to talk about me, and you know what we’re going to do, we’re going to talk about ETERNAL SUNSHINE now, because—

KC: Oh no, if you deflected to ETERNAL SUNSHINE then you’ve revealed so much more about yourself than what you possibly could’ve told us upfront.

KD: Anyone who knows me knows that ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND is my favorite movie of all time, and you texted me saying [starts doing a dumb voice] “Oh I know all the white girls are gonna be triggered” during that scene where Nora gets Hae Sung to watch it, and I don’t think triggered is the right word! I’m now acting triggered, but it’s more like… How dare you evoke this testament to how difficult relationships are. My filmmaking rule is never to bring up a better movie in your movie, because at that moment when it’s revealed it’s Nora’s favorite movie, it just made me want to hang out with my friends Clem and Joel. Those characters are so complicated because they have memories of each other, with each other, and it’s not just some specter of fate that’s reconnected them. They fucked on the couch, they’ve said awful things to each other, they argue in the street, you know, like how people can do to each other in relationships. PAST LIVES would’ve worked if Celine Song was willing to zoom out and question why Nora was romanticizing this one little childhood memory, but she takes herself so seriously that she can’t question her own narrative.

KC: The movie seems to, at least partially, be approaching the relationship metaphorically. Nora is dealing more with an alienation from her country of origin as embodied through one man who’s come to greet her again just as she’s settled into an assimilated groove, but it also never really is that. Song doesn’t share the incentives for a Korean family in the late 90s/early 00s to move to North America. Make big bucks, I guess? If the basis of Nora and Hae Sung’s shared infatuation was that they projected onto one another in their coincidentally timed moments of peak dissatisfaction—these stretches of compromise where chance and wonder shrink so rapidly that these two start taking the mocked concept of “in-yun” seriously for the first time—then maybe there’s some maturation to observe. Instead, the film does nothing to convince me that Celine Song has anything to teach us about this nearly lifelong tryst since she seemingly hasn’t learned much from it either.

KD: For presenting itself as a romantic tragedy not unlike Wong Kar-wai’s greatest works, these so-called “hardships” look like a total fantasy life for me. Being a professional writer in New York where I’m married and we have a very open communication of our feelings, and I have this childhood crush I hang out with who also gets along with my husband? Great! Why are you guys so sad? That looks cool! You have a friend!

KC: Lady, you have a friend! Brother, she is your friend!

KD: Why are you both so sad about this?! Because you held hands when you were nine?! I had boyfriends when I was really young, too, but I’ve also become an adult who’s lived adult experiences and has met other adults.

Past Lives Movie Couple

KC: Does the central conceit of this movie make your heart flutter?

KD: I think I’m a romantic. Are you?

KC: Uh…

KD: You don’t strike me as one.

KC: I would say maybe no, maybe yes depending on who I’m paired with? I just find the way Nora lives to be such a nightmarishly boring way to conduct yourself when faced with some guy from way back you still have chemistry with that you can talk to about Korea. Forget waiting for the next life to become soul mates, just go get fucking lunch. It’s a person you can freely talk to about a whole segment of your brain that your husband has explicitly and healthily expressed that he cannot and may never relate to.

KD: It’s Celine Song’s prerogative, but your call to get an audience to care about your story can’t just be “it happened to me.”

KC: She seems to be coasting off the predisposed feelings we have towards a BRIEF ENCOUNTER-type tragic romance so hers can function as well, but I’ve seen this concept play out dozens of times in television, bargain bin dramas, and soaps. And so have you! If you didn’t watch THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, then you probably watched LA LA LAND, and the list goes on. It’s cut from the same cloth of so many romances, but this one isn’t even spicy.

KD: The sexiest moment in the film is when Nora reveals that in-yun is a way for Koreans to seduce westerners, so really I think this is a prevailing movie for the crowd who thinks you don’t need sex scenes in movies anymore. They didn’t even have that spark; if she wanted that work, she could’ve flown over oceans for it, but she didn’t.

KC: International airfare is quite expensive.

KD: But they’re not fucking poor! Not to go all class warfare, but, Kevin, when was money ever an issue in this movie?

KC: Sorry, I got distracted wondering if they ever had Skype sex and why we never got to see it. She really just was his Discord kitten. And I think that much inaction would be perfectly fine if the cinematic language held these moments up as monumentally as we’re told the characters are—DESERT HEARTS made my heart skip a beat with so much less—but there’s a moment where Nora and Hae Sung meet in a Brooklyn park and make skin contact for the first time in over 20 years and, maybe this is a me problem, but I felt no butterflies. PAST LIVES is built on this false modesty, where its dull subtlety only brings more attention to its self-indulgences, and its facile simplicity highlights the ego that’s caked over what remnants of wisdom you can excavate from the thing. You cast Greta Lee as yourself, and then made your crush the hottest man I’ve ever seen on recorded film. Like, bro, this is not an understated expression of the self, so you can stop pretending that it is.

KD: If it’s a you problem, then it’s also a me problem.


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