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Past Lives - A Mini Review of Celine Song's 2023 Masterpiece

  • 3 mins

Celine Song's "Past Lives" stands as a contender for the best film of 2023. It delivers a poignant narrative without succumbing to the clichés often associated with romance. In this exploration of childhood lovers Nora and Hae Sung, reuniting after Nora's emigration to the USA, Song presents a realistic portrayal of love. The film leaves an indelible mark of tragedy and bittersweet emotion.


Warning: Indirect Spoilers Ahead

Revisiting past relationships in the future, especially as friends, may seem implausible, but the authenticity and rawness of Nora and Hae Sung's emotions break through stereotypes. The film navigates awkward moments with grace, normalizing them and adding layers of complexity to the characters. Describing the film without spoilers proves challenging, as labeling it as realistic risks revealing its ending.


Navigating the "What Ifs?"

One notable strength of the film lies in its ability to pose the question of "what ifs?" What if two people who were once inseparable had never crossed paths again? The narrative prompts viewers to ponder the alternate realities that could have unfolded had second, third, or fourth chances been given. The film cleverly refrains from providing definitive outcomes, leaving the audience to grapple with the tragic unknown.



Morally Ambiguous Dilemmas

Unlike typical romances where moral clarity prevails, "Past Lives" ventures into morally ambiguous territory. Both Nora and Hae Sung are depicted as decent individuals, adding emotional depth to the film. The exploration of the "what if" scenario contributes to the moral complexity, leaving audiences with a multitude of potential resolutions and alternate realities. It's up to the viewer to decide who should have done what, adding an extra layer of engagement and contemplation to the narrative.


While the film's conclusion may not be a complete mystery, it is the bittersweet dilemma, not the outcome, that lingers. "Past Lives" prompts contemplation about the paths not taken in our own lives—choices of partners, countries, and destinies. The film challenges the notion of soulmates, inviting viewers to question the concept of choosing the perfect partner. Contemplating alternative outcomes may induce stress and sadness, but it also unfolds new ideas and possibilities.


Beyond Soulmates: The Notion of the Perfect Partner

As we contemplate the idea of a perfect partner, "Past Lives" challenges societal norms surrounding relationships. The film questions the existence of a flawless soulmate, emphasizing that genuine connections are more than a spark. While the term "soulmate" isn't necessarily outdated, it can foster unrealistic expectations. The film argues that lasting relationships are a gradual process, requiring depth beyond initial attraction.


Shifting from social and religious discussions to the realm of soulmates and relationships may seem surprising. Yet, they all share a common thread as essential human issues worthy of exploration. Relationships, while intricate, merit attention as a crucial and complex aspect of our lives, encouraging profound reflection. As a social worker, just when I believe I comprehend the intricacies of relationships, I continually uncover new insights and perspectives.



Diverse Paths Ahead

"Past Lives" sparked a realization for me—the recognition that multiple futures await us, each shaped by the choices we make. At times, we get fixated on constructing an ideal life with a particular individual, potentially losing sight of the myriad possibilities before us. This extends beyond the realm of relationships and delves into the broader scope of our social circles. The notion of a meaningful life may be intertwined with a specific community, like a church, but alternative futures exist where belonging and comfort may be discovered in different spaces.


Hae Sung: [in Korean] What if this is a past life as well, and we are already something else to each other in our next life? Who do you think we are then?

Nora: I don’t know.

Hae Sung: Me neither. See you then.

Shared Journey - One additional remark

Your role in my life has been pivotal, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have met someone with your unique qualities. As we both chase our ambitions, it seems our paths are diverging. I find myself wondering if there's still a space for me in your journey. They say loss often brings gain, and I hold onto that hope. The pain is deep because my feelings for you are strong, and your presence has meant a lot.


Images from the movie 'Past Lives' (2023) directed by Celine Song, courtesy of A24

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