Forget Barbie, Oppenheimer and Poor Things – this is the film that should win the Oscar...

In a year where the categories are more stacked than ever, could a ‘film where nothing happens’ sweep the Academy Awards?

Olivia Petter
Saturday 09 March 2024 16:27 GMT
Oscars 2024: Who will win Best Picture and Best Director? | Binge Watch

Imagine a film where hardly anything happens. There are no deadly car chases accentuated by ample CGI. No dramatic monologues seeking to restructure the political and social order. And certainly no historic scientific discoveries set to change everything about the world as we know it. Past Lives is not like other films – especially not those it’s nominated alongside for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars

A quiet meditation on the romanticisation of childhood sweethearts, Celine Song’s astonishing debut has become the unexpected critical darling of Oscars season. Revolving around Nora (played by Greta Lee), who moves from South Korea to New York, and her childhood friend, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), the film follows how the two reconnect as adults more than 20 years after they first met, forging the kind of rare fierce bond that many spend their whole lives yearning for.

The catch? Nora is now married to an American. Still, after years of sporadically talking online, Hae Sung, who is still living in South Korea, decides to visit. 

It might sound like a fairly simplistic plot – honestly, it’s barely a plot at all. But that’s entirely the point. By removing all external points for possible drama, the film makes space for a unique breed of emotional intensity that carries us right through to the end. It’s rare to see this, particularly because the film is told almost entirely from Nora’s point of view, with all the emotional subtleties that brings.

It’s the excitement in her face when she has her first video call with Hae Sung – and the subsequent disappointment and confusion when it’s over. It’s the way she lights up when she meets her American husband on a writers’ retreat, and the way she looks at him when he tells her that she talks in Korean in her sleep, or as he puts it, “dreams in a language [he] can’t understand”.

It’s not often we get access to the quiet corners of a woman’s mind like this. Ostensibly, there’s nothing at stake. At least not in the obvious senses: financially, professionally, and so on, everything is in order. Nora doesn’t even have children to worry about. The thing that drives the plot forward involves none of the conventional codes needed to form a narrative arc. It’s simply about a woman’s interior tussle between two men in her life. But even putting it like that seems to give the whole thing more dramatic weight than it deserves. 

After all, Nora is married. And even though we see her and Hae Sung reconnecting deeply over their lifelong bond, there’s never a hint that this will tip into infidelity, as it might in a film written by a less compassionate and nuanced hand than Song’s. Nor do we get a sense that Nora’s bond with Hae Sung undermines that which she shares with her husband. Instead, what we get is a realistic depiction of what happens when you love two people at the same time, and in radically different ways

The beauty of Past Lives is that it defies everything we’ve been taught about what constitutes classic cinema. And yet, tomorrow night, it will compete against nine examples of just that for the greatest accolade in Hollywood. In these films, the tension might be more obvious, the plot twistier and more deeply rooted in historical legacy. But Past Lives earns its place on that list because it offers something different, something that all of us might be able to relate to.

Whether it’s feeling like an outsider, or questioning the depth of your own feelings, and whether or not you should act on them, potentially changing the entire course of your life to date – these are emotional challenges that we all face at some point. After all, love is surely the singular thing in this world that unites us all. Perhaps that makes the stakes higher than ever.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in