Fate and destiny aren’t unfamiliar concepts in cinema. From William Friedkin‘s Sorcerer to the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks blockbuster Sleepless in Seattle, the two closely related concepts have been used as drivers to create every human emotion we could possibly feel.
The Korean concept of inyeon is another branch of the “life is pre-determined” family tree, but it’s something that we encounter far less often. Inyeon refers to the connective tissue between people that forms across encounters in multiple lifetimes. Perhaps you and a friend had known each other in a previous incarnation as a tree and an apple that had grown from it, perhaps you’ll meet again in the next as brother and sister, and so on. With each life and each interaction, it seems that the bond becomes more and more meaningful.
The belief system behind it is that if two people are to get married to one another, they must have experienced eight-thousand layers of inyeon in their previous lives. For the Americanised Korean at the centre of Past Lives, Nora (Greta Lee), it’s little more than a charming little story to tell when she meets Arthur (John Magaro) during an artist’s residency. The two of them are single, and they get along with one another well enough to keep hanging out until they eventually get married. There isn’t anything particularly exciting about their story, it’s just a relationship that works. Something that, as a writer, Arthur is acutely aware of.
Nora is a woman with big ambitions, though. She left Korea in pursuit of a Nobel Prize, and as she’s gotten older and more realistic her expectations have only shifted as far as pursuing a Pulitzer Prize instead. Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) is the childhood crush that she left behind and barely thought of ever again. He only comes back into her life when she looks him up on Facebook years after leaving Korea, but prior to meeting Arthur, only to find that he has been looking for her. The only thing that stopped Hae Sung from finding Nora was that she left Korea as a girl named Na Young.
They reconnect over Skype from opposite ends of the world and at opposite ends of the day, both unable to travel to see one another immediately due to where they both are in life. Nora is chasing her dreams, and almost resents the distraction that Hae Sung provides, whereas Hae Sung is a student whose life was put on hold by mandatory military service. As such, Nora puts an end to their relationship. She simply isn’t interested in anything that doesn’t have an end goal.
Years later they reconnect again, at another different stage in both of their lives. Hae Sung is freshly out of a relationship and finally able to travel to New York. Nora is now married to Arthur, but she’s pleased to meet him under the pretence that they’ve both moved on. It isn’t long before Nora learns that Hae Sung has only come to New York so he can see her, which she’s totally upfront and honest about with Arthur. Still painfully aware of the mundanity of their own story, Arthur never stands in the way of Nora’s chance to reconnect with the man he perceives as her first love.
The beauty of Past Lives is that we’re given the space to simply observe. Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur are all complete personalities with their own reasons to feel happy and sad throughout, but we’re never told who to root for and why. There are no heroes and villains, there are simply people who have found themselves in a situation that requires a great deal of empathy for one another.
Just as fate and destiny have repeatedly been used in other films to scare or enamour us, Past Lives uses inyeon to create a sense of yearning. As much as Nora yearns for a better life away from Korea, both Hae Sung and Arthur are yearning for their own happy endings that revolve around her. Neither of them does so in a way that encroaches on the other, which essentially renders a happy ending for us as an audience impossible. It almost promotes the concept of inyeon as a coping mechanism, as at least if we believe in inyeon, then there exists the possibility that they’ve all reached a happy ending in the next life if not this one. One of the more poignant moments of the film comes when Hae Sung recognises that he and Arthur now have inyeon in each other too.
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Even coming so soon after films like Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun and Florian Zeller’s The Father, it’s hard to believe that Celine Song has been able to achieve such thematic sophistication and emotional nuance in what is her directorial debut. Past Lives celebrates the remarkable nature of human life that exists in the seemingly unremarkable connections that we forge with one another as we go through it. If there’s any point to film as an art form, then surely it has to be to make the ordinary beautiful.
Past Lives is out now in cinemas.