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Celine Song’s Past Lives

Past Lives

Past Lives

Past Lives, USA 2023. Directed and screenplay by Celine Song.

Cinema Theater, Row 2, Seat 11. Original version with terrible German subs.

(This post originally appeared, in slightly different form, at my Instagram account betweendrafts.)

Whatever idea you took away from watching the trailer, it’s not a love triangle story.

The actors are so good it’s unreal. The script is fantastic. Set and sound design—and the entire soundscape—excel with lovingly detailed spaces and everyday sounds that deliver an almost physical experience.

The cinematography feels like an actor in its own right, who leads you—particularly with near-Italian closeups, long dolly shots, and some “frozen” shots where time almost ceases to exist—into, through, and out of each scene and each characters’ emotions and dispositions.

The movie was shot with a Panavision XL2 on 35mm film and, according to cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, “push-processed by at least +1 stop and in some cases pull-processed -2 stops” for the just-right grain, contrast, and softness. Even though I watched it on the Cinema Theater’s rather mundane digital CP2220 projector, it still came through. It was gorgeous. It’s sad, it’s beautiful, it’s full of joy. It’s arthouse cinema at its finest. Also, you can savor the beautiful sound of the Korean language.

However, one caveat if you live where I live: the matter of the theatrical version’s German subtitle set. I can’t judge for Korean, but the subtitles for the English dialogues was the most atrocious and laziest hack job I’ve seen in years. Adjectives caught the worst. They were either conceptually butchered (e.g., “your life here is so much bigger” vs. »so viel besser«; “you have the smallest room” vs. »das schlechteste Zimmer«) or brutally assimilated (e.g., “crazy,” “weird,” and “intense” all became »krass«. Yes, »krass«.) What’s more, side and background dialogues didn’t have subtitles at all!

Soooo it can’t possibly be worse, right? Wrong! Judging from the German-language trailer that ran during previous theater visits, the full dubbed version will literally set your brain on fire. The German line »…da werd’ ich Dir doch nicht verbieten, ihn zu treffen« (roughly, “so I won’t forbid you to meet him”), for example, is so mindbogglingly wrong and screamingly misleading that you have to conclude time machines exist because it can only have been translated by someone who lives in the 1950s. Thus, stick to the subtitled version, as bad as it is, if you want to enjoy the movie.

Which you should.

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