Forget ‘Oppenheimer’—‘Past Lives’ Is the Oscar Best Picture Nominee That Actually Deserves the Win

The grit, not glitz, is the charm

past lives review
Paula Boudes/PureWow/IMDb

It’s safe to say that the 2024 Oscar nominations are stacked. In the best picture category alone, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is going head-to-head with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. And don’t forget Barbie, the blockbuster phenomenon that had every millennial (and their kids) coasting on a fuchsia-pink tidal wave of nostalgia. But there’s one entry, less splashy than the rest, that has sustained its quiet momentum since it premiered at Sundance in January 2023: Past Lives.

ICYMI: Past Lives is playwright and screenwriter Celine Song’s directorial debut, a semi-autobiographical film that follows the protagonist, Nora Moon (Greta Lee), from adolescence to adulthood as her family immigrates to North America. In Seoul, she leaves behind a childhood crush. When they reunite years later in New York City, both must contend with the realities of their present lives: Nora is married to a fellow writer, Arthur (John Magaro), and Hae Sung (Tae Yoo) is in a serious, long-term relationship. The fact that he’s come to New York specifically to see her throws a wrench into the playwright’s life: What if choosing Arthur was a mistake?

Being the straggler that I am, I finally saw the movie in December—and I’m still thinking about it, especially as the Academy Awards approach and the internet has been indignant over many snubs—Song and Lee included. For a while, I couldn’t figure out why the film lingered so persistently in my mind. I’m someone who appreciates plot-driven storylines—murder mysteries, kids’ action movies, romantic comedies, historical fiction with political intrigue—you get the gist. Thus, Past Lives wouldn’t seem like something I’d love, because, frankly, nothing happens. Nothing as in, everything is internal; the characters’ emotional arcs are front and center, and that’s pretty much it. Then, as I sat down with PureWow’s culture editor to discuss this year’s AAPI month coverage, it dawned on me: Nora Moon gives me what Rachel Chu couldn’t.

When Crazy Rich Asians came out in 2018, it was hailed as a force of nature, shattering a bamboo ceiling of sorts, with a predominantly all-Asian cast including Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Jimmy O. Yang and Michelle Yeoh. If I recall correctly, the last time something like this had happened was with The Joy Luck Club 25 years earlier. The movie catapulted many, including previously unknown Golding, into the mainstream. But fun, glamourous, dramatic and “groundbreaking” as it was, six years on, the sequel has yet to materialize, probably sitting in what is known as “development hell.” The real thing I take issue with, though? It wasn’t relatable.

I’m not saying that stories must be relatable to be fun, and it’s not that Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t relatable at all—many, I’m sure, can identify with testy, disapproving in-laws. My problem was that it played heavily into the, well, crazy rich Asian stereotype. (I write this as someone who went to school with mind-bogglingly wealthy kids from mainland China who drove Maseratis and wore Chanel ballet flats on campus.) This isn’t the world that I, nor, would I say, most of my friends growing up, knew. Our stories consisted of immigrant parents or, in my own case, grandparents, losing everything when Communism came and having to leave behind everything they’d known to literally start all over again in a place where they’d need to work twice as hard, be twice as qualified to even be considered for a job. (That’s one of the reasons why, my mother once told me, my grandfathers had PhDs. No one would take them seriously otherwise.) No one was close to billionaire, let alone millionaire status. No private jets and buying the entire Chopard inventory and palatial family homes to return to in the summer. Crazy Rich Asians is a fantasy, a fairy tale. It’s not “real life.”

I love escapism as much as the next person and that’s often the point of cinema. However, in this specific context, a portrayal of “real life” is invaluable and very much needed. We need to see Asians (you could also make the case, broadly, for all BIPOC) living, being alive and partaking in stories where our heritage isn’t the plot, a quirk or microcosm in our culture not the justification for the story’s existence. This is the brilliance of Past Lives.

Fundamentally, Past Lives is a universal human story. It’s about ambition, sacrifice, regret, fate, entertaining “what could have been,” being OK with the choices you’ve made and letting go of the temptation to throw away the life you have now for the one you think you might have wanted. Nora and Hae Sung contend with all these things throughout the film. Yes, their heritage is acknowledged—the majority of the film is in Korean and Nora has a lengthy discussion with her husband about her conflicting feelings—but it wasn’t the epicenter of the movie. Instead, it was two people wrestling with their feelings for each other, the lives they’d built and the life they could have shared. That uncertainty over whether we’ve made the right choices is something that any human can relate to, regardless of race or cultural background. We all know the feeling of regret.

Every year when the “heritage/cultural” months come around, I always feel like Schrödinger’s cat. The arrival of AAPI month is society ringing the bell, reminding me that I’ll never be just American, fated to always have an appendaged identity. Out I pop to tell my trauma story, after which no one wants to hear anything, traumatic or not, until next year. What makes Past Lives so encouraging and liberating for me is knowing that people can (and want to) pay attention to a BIPOC story that’s not a sob story, that’s not a fantastical story. Only demanding sob stories makes us one-dimensional sufferers—and as Nora and Hae Sung so beautifully illustrate, being human is so much more complex than that.

MW 10

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