All great love stories seem start with fate: two people existing in the same room, two eyes meeting for a split of a second, fate dealing them lucky hands in a great cosmic card game.
For Koreans, fate goes by another name, 인연 (in–yun). “When two strangers walk past each other on the street and their clothes accidentally brush, it is because there has been something between them in their past lives,” says Nora, the main character of Celine Song’s new film under A24, Past Lives. “If two people get married, they say it’s because there have been eight thousand layers of in–yun over eight thousand lifetimes.” The notion that we are all bound together is the theme underlying the movie and endless other love stories, but it’s also the belief the film sets out to deconstruct.
In–yun is not a strange topic in Korean dramas. Going beyond the idea of two lovers drawn together by cosmic forces, in–yun refers to a spiritual connection that spans across lifetimes. The notion takes roots in the Buddhist interpretation of “karma,” which mean both the negative and/or positive consequences of one’s actions (unlike the definition we might see in the likes of Taylor Swift’s music video). Plenty of Korean stories trade in the idea that lovers in this lifetime are bound by their actions in the previous lives. This is an especially common troupe in fantastical dramas like See You in My 19th Life, Chicago Typewriter, or Hotel del Luna, where the protagonists navigate their current love life as a consequence of their relationships in the past, be it best friends, love triangles, or frenemies. Given the popularity of these titles, there seems to be something about in–yun that especially captivates viewers. Perhaps deep down, all of us are just suckers for the idea of reincarnation and finding the love of our lives again and again, across time and space, no matter how improbable it clearly is.
For Past Lives, the same notion of in–yun is introduced, albeit not without a twist. Hae Sung and Nora, long lost childhood friends, reunite in the far–flung city of New York, half a world away from the Seoul of their shared childhood and 24 years apart from their old stomping grounds. One might expect a perfect, star–crossed reunion.
But instead, what they get is silence. Unlike popular dramas that portray in–yun as a triumphant culmination of past moments, Past Lives opts for a much more unassuming approach. In fact, the movie itself is made up of more silence than dialogue. When Hae Sung and Nora meet again in New York City, when Hae Sung first meets Nora’s husband, and when Hae Sung and Nora part for the last time, they speak in silence and uneasiness. But why? If Hae Sung and Nora are bound by in–yun, why are there no spectacular moments of enlightenment where they both realize in elation that they are “the one” for each other? On the subway, the characters stand beside each other, but one pole apart. Along the river, they walk together—at an arm’s reach. Even when they are sitting next to each other, there is a physical and emotional barrier built up from years of distance that not even the magical power of in–yun can surpass. Surprisingly, the movie is made up of distance, not connection, an antithesis of in–yun rather than a celebration of it.
All of this culminates in the scene where Hae Sung, Nora, and Nora’s husband, Arthur, sit down for dinner, and Nora is forced to contemplate the two halves of her life. If Nora hadn’t left, perhaps their friendship could have developed into something more. The man in Nora’s life now—that could have been Hae Sung.
But Nora did move away. The friendship between them didn’t develop into something more. They are not each other’s families’, they will not have kids, and the man in Nora’s life now—it’s not Hae Sung. This is not a romance. Right from the start, there is no chance that they will be together, and all of this is beautifully put in Hae Sung’s acceptance of the inevitability of their situation: “You had to leave because you are you, and the reason I liked you is because you are you. And who you are is someone who leaves.”
The audience is set up to believe that the in–yun central to this story is between Nora and Hae Sung, when in fact, did in–yun not bring Nora and Arthur together? That’s the funny thing about it: in–yun becomes whatever we want it to be. Any manifestation could be a sign, and we pick from those signs to build our own stories. The most thought–provoking aspect of Past Lives, then, is how successful it is in luring the audience into thinking that in–yun only exists between Nora and Hae Sung when in fact, in–yun is part of every connection. Hae Sung met Nora, Nora met Arthur, Arthur met Hae Sung—they are all present in each other's lives because of in–yun. But then does it mean that there is no in–yun at all?
Arguably, the movie does not want to completely discard the idea of fate. Rather, it wants to demystify our perception of in–yun as an all–powerful force we must submit to. We meet someone, we create connections with them, then we drift apart. It does not mean that what has blossomed between us accounts to nothing. Just like Hae Sung and Nora, we will forever treasure the people in our past lives simply because they have been a part of our lives, but perhaps that alone is not enough to turn our world upside down purely for the pursuit of some fantastical romance.
For Nora, she struggles to break the in–yun not just with Hae Sung, but also with her Korean cultural background that she has struggled with for so long. To Nora, her two identities present an either–or problem: She can either be with Arthur—sticking to her American side—or reconnect with Hae Sung and let her inner Korean side free. But few things in life are such binary oppositions, and by the end of the movie, Nora has come to realize that she does not have to pick between her past lives. Nora is Na Young and Na Young is Nora. Even though they might be completely different, Nora is only the person she is today because there existed a Na Young in the past, and that Na Young is someone whom Nora will forever treasure.
The final scene, Hae Sung leaves as quickly as the way Nora had left his life before. It’s a quiet scene, but it is no longer a silence of uneasiness or distance—rather one of understanding, of mutual trust, and perhaps above all, of resignation. In their past lives, perhaps Hae Sung and Nora were enemies. In their future lives, perhaps they could be lovers, but in this life, their connection lies somewhere on the spectrum of what could have been, and it is clear that the time has come for them to let go of that “what if.” Hae Sung leaves in a taxi, moving further and further away from Nora while she is in Arthur’s arms, crying for the first time since she stepped foot in the United States.