A24’s Sundance and Berlin hit “Past Lives” marks the directional debut of Celine Song. It is already one of the year’s most loved and well-received movies, creating a huge buzz for the award season. Celine Song’s sucker-punch tells the tale of Nora and Hae Sung— two deeply connected childhood friends who are drawn to each other as classmates, rivals, and friends. But this doesn’t last long, as they had to wrest apart after Nora’s family emigrated from South Korea. Twenty years later, they are reunited for one fateful week as they confront notions of love and destiny. The movie has the “walking and talking” format, leaving us with many “could have been” s. It is inevitable that “Past Lives” brings to mind a number of love stories. There are numerous diasporic movies like “Past Lives” since it presents a universal tale.
The haunting ellipses of unrequited love and childhood memories take the audience back to confront their own bygone truths. The film incorporates the Korean (Buddhist) concept of ‘In-Yun,’ in which thousands of connections from our past lives inform our relationships in the present (and future).
Here is my curated list of 8 movies like “Past Lives.”
1. ’96 (2018)
Anyone who is not well-versed in Regional Indian Cinema might think ’96 is a shocking choice to start the list with. In terms of the theme, “Past Lives” is eerily similar to ’96” as both involve meeting two school friends with romantic inclinations towards each other. Both these movies are charming and unsentimental. But they never lose the grip on the emotions that two people might go through during a reunion decades later.
There are moments of innate nervousness and vulnerability when Ram sees Janaki in the reunion. There is very little melodrama in how he eases back. Like “Past Lives,” we get flashbacks of their school life. There are lovely little scenes of endearment between the two characters. Ram asks Janaki to step into his house with her right foot first, and Janaki later sings ‘Yamunai Aatriley” for him. Vijay Sethupati and Trisha’s muted but mature performance fills our hearts with nostalgic memorabilia even though it ends with a fate similar to “Past Lives.
2. Before Sunset (2004)
Whenever you talk about movies like “Past Lives,” you can’t omit Richard Linklater’s celebrated sequel to his joyous “Before Sunrise.” It is fitting that “Before Sunset” takes place nine years after the fateful day of the previous movie, which brought two strangers, Jesse and Celine, together in a chance encounter.
Now, they meet again in the streets of Paris, and we learn that they didn’t get to meet each other in all these years. Jesse and Celine have grown up with conflicting philosophies and varied outlooks toward life. They are in a race against time to chat and figure out whether they are still compatible. In fact, they chat about everything under the sun, and slowly, the internal demons flare up. Their passionate argument unfolds in the soothing backdrop of Paris. The ending is deliciously ambiguous, making it one of the best sequels to ever exist.
3. Certified Copy (2010)
This makes it to the list being one of the best ‘walk & talk’ movies ever. It has the director Abbas Kiarostami in his most relaxed and remarkably intimate avatar. The luminous and hypnotic Juliette Binoche plays an antique dealer who attends a lecture by an art historian, eventually inviting him to her shop. The screenplay does not show the motivation to get acquainted with each other. Thus, the foundation of the two protagonists’ relationship is forever danced around in a frustrating yet seductive way for the audience.
Kiarostami is deeply philosophical in his rhetorics and questions everything from human existence to the sanctity of marriage through the conversations between the two. “Certified Copy” is a movie similar to “Past Lives” as it is about the moments, perceptions, and bonding that people share, which leave a life-long impact on them. The movie is cynical and blessed with impeccable cinematography, making the experience a dense but decadent one.
4. 5 Centimeters Per Second (2007)
Directed by revered Japanese director Makoto Shinkai, the animated feature “5 Centimeters Per Second” is a heartfelt, contemplative, and poignant movie that is similar to “Past Lives.” It tells the tale of two people, Tono Takaki and Shinohara Akari, who were close friends but gradually grew farther apart as time passed. They become separated because of their families yet continue to exchange contact in the form of letters. Yet, as time continues to trudge on, their contact with one another begins to cease.
Years pass, and the rift between them grows ever larger. However, Takaki remembers the times they have shared together, but as life continues to unfold for him, he wonders if he will be given the chance to meet Akari again as the tale embarks on Takaki’s realization of the world and people around him. Shinkai is as concerned with the theme of unrequited love and the burden of memories as he is with the travail of growing up rapidly in an increasingly fast world. The movie is as bittersweet as “Past Lives” and haunts us with the possibilities of the ‘Could have been’s in life.
5. Minari (2020)
There are plenty of movies like “Past Lives” in the Korean diaspora as the stories of close friends and family members relocating to the West are quite a common occurrence in their lives. In the 1980s, David, a seven-year-old Korean-American boy, faces new surroundings and a different way of life when his father, Jacob, moves their family from the West Coast to rural Arkansas. His mother, Monica, is aghast that they live in a mobile home in the middle of nowhere, and naughty little David and his sister are bored and aimless.
When his equally mischievous grandmother arrives from Korea to live with them, her unfamiliar ways arouse David’s curiosity. Meanwhile, Jacob, hell-bent on creating a farm on untapped soil, throws their finances, his marriage, and the stability of the family into jeopardy. Director Lee Isaac Chung shares his autobiographical experience in “Minari” to portray a nuanced tale of hope, faith, and family that strikes a universal chord.
6. Columbus (2017)
Korean-American filmmaker Kogonada’s “Columbus” is a charming independent movie similar to “Past Lives” featuring stellar performances from John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson. It is set in the small town of Columbus, located in South Eastern Indiana, and the town is a Mecca of modern architecture and art. The movie is about relationships between modern architecture and the city, between a father and a son, and between a mother and her daughter. It is a delicate and fleeting account of two people meandering in the city.
In the movie, a young architecture connoisseur tries to provide the buildings with an analytical ardor as his Korean-born father falls into a coma and meets a young woman who plans on staying in the state with her mother, who is recovering from substance addiction.
7. Ijaazat (1987)
In this tragic and strangely poetic Indian movie directed by Gulzar, a man and a woman who are long divorced accidentally meet again in a waiting room at the railway station. They eventually relieve their past and contemplate how their marriage collapsed prematurely despite having transparency between them. The film devolves into an endless circle of suffering and self-absorption as the two chat about old habits and the travesty in their present lives.
Gulzar’s movie still remains poignant as it shows how defiant love might fall in its turmoil with the insurgencies of life. Naseeruddin Shah and Rekha are stalwarts whose performances lay bare their wounded hearts failing to heal. It is a sincere attempt to put forth the squabbles and tenderness of a broken relationship as the two characters ruminate on life in a remote rail station.
8. Tigertail (2020)
The last movie in the list of movies like “Past Lives” I want to mention is Alan Yang’s earnest and intimate debut feature “Tigertail,” featuring Tzi Ma and Christine Ko in the lead roles. In the movie, a man reflects on the lost love of his youth and his long-ago journey from Taiwan to America as he begins to reconnect with his estranged daughter.
“Tigertail” is an immigrant story grounded in reality and the toll it takes on a man to pursue their American dream. The story has a universality that escapes the boundaries. It beautifully explores Taiwan and is ambitious enough to incorporate three separate periods. Alan Yang earns as impressive a debut as Celine Song did.