Celine Song’s 2023 semi-autobiographical film, Past Lives, explores the depth and nuance of human connection and identity within the context of Korean cultural belief in the idea of in-yun. The film’s protagonist explains, “There’s a word in Korean… in-yun. It means providence or fate. But it’s specifically about relationships between people. I think it comes from Buddhism and reincarnation. It’s an in-yun if two strangers even walk by each other on the street and their clothes accidentally brush. It means there must be something between them in their past lives.” Starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro, Past Lives, at first glance, is a seemingly simple film about long-lost love, fate and destiny – themes which have saturated the romance genre since its conception. The film follows the levelheaded and ambitious Nora Moon, gracefully portrayed by Lee, over 24 years of her life. We follow her journey from her family’s immigration from Seoul to Toronto, her move to New York as a young adult, to her life in her 30s as a writer in the city. Her husband Arthur, played by Magaro, is also a writer whom Nora met at a month-long artists’ residency. Magaro brings an immediate likability to Arthur and his chemistry with Lee makes the couple’s genuine love and connection quite palpable. The third member of the main cast is Hae Sung, portrayed by Yoo, who lives in Seoul and was Nora’s friend and playground crush in Seoul. Nora and Hae Sung’s history from childhood sweethearts, to long-distance friends as college students to eventually estranged thirty-something year-olds becomes a foundation for what may be the film’s inciting incident: Hae Sung visiting New York City to see Nora.
Love triangles are a staple in the romance genre across all storytelling mediums, from The Great Gatsby to The Notebook – narratives which depict the complicated dramas of men who pine for their spoken-for love interests. These tropes and archetypes plant certain expectations in the heads of audience members. One may see a trailer of Past Lives and become intrigued by the love triangle between the three main characters. They may enter the theater expecting scenes of sensuous longing, secret rendezvous and impassioned speeches about the intensity of one’s forbidden feelings of love and lust. Past Lives excludes these clichés entirely, steering clear of sex scenes and overly-sentimental dialogues. In the midst of my own viewing of the film, it abruptly dawned on me that Song had no intention of shocking or titillating her audience; she chose instead to depict a love story which holds communication, honesty and emotional maturity in high regard.
“Who do you think they are to each other?” The first line of dialogue in the film is delivered by an unseen and unnamed character over a shot of Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur, sitting together at a bar. Immediately, Song builds intrigue. She informs us that this is the question that Past Lives will spend its entire run time attempting to answer. This unseen stranger engages in a conversation with another disembodied voice, their dialogue becoming the centerpiece of this opening sequence, as they speculate about the three. Their assumptions are frankly based on racist stereotypes, supposing that the “Asian girl and the Asian guy” must be siblings or that perhaps they are married and Arthur is their “American friend” or “tour guide”. They take a few more guesses, during which the camera zooms closer into Nora’s face, until the two men are no longer in frame. Then the same voice that started the conversation ends it with the words, “…I have no idea.”, as Nora’s eyes find the camera, in a sort of fourth-wall-breaking moment. This opening scene brilliantly illustrates the main idea of the film in just under two minutes, communicating to us that the filmmaker knows that we are going to make assumptions about who these characters are. However, it is made clear that this story is ultimately Nora’s and that her breaking the fourth wall may well be a playful message from Song herself, that she – in her own voice – will show us just how wrong all of our expectations and assumptions are.
Song exercises not only an acute skill for crafting a visually stunning film, but also a vulnerability and honesty in her storytelling. She includes scenes here which are quite specific to the immigrant experience, from subtle details like Nora and her younger sister lightheartedly practicing English on the plane ride–capturing the excitement of traveling to a new place and learning new things–to Nora looking visibly lonely and isolated on her new school’s playground, emphasizing a feeling of displacement and ‘otherness’ that is all too common for immigrant children. As a first generation, foreign-born, Asian American immigrant myself, I understood that much of Nora’s connection to Hae Sung was rooted in the fact that, through him, she was able to experience being back in Seoul and being a child once more. One scene even sees Hae Sung video chatting with Nora on his phone while he ascends above Seoul on a cable car. As he shows her the view, she wistfully stares at the grainy image of the city on her laptop, muttering the words, ‘I miss you’. It is easy to assume that she is speaking to Hae Sung, but I believe that she was simply expressing how much she missed Seoul itself, as if it still held a large portion of her heart and her identity and as if she had a certain type of in-yun with it, as well.
The artistic and narrative direction for this film is impressive in the sense that it is simple, but effective. I was particularly taken by her use of language to communicate the extent of Nora’s inner struggle with her past and her identity. In the second act, Arthur makes a vulnerable confession to Nora about his own insecurities and fears over not being good enough for her, saying, “…You make my world so much bigger and I’m wondering if I do the same for you.” He goes on to tell her that she talks in her sleep, but only in Korean and he agonizes over the fact that he cannot understand her. He expresses, “It’s like there’s this whole place inside of you where I can’t go.” When he attempts to speak to her in Korean, Nora seems to only respond in English, as if she feels that this is something that she is not able to share with him, despite his efforts. It is in the third act, when Nora introduces Hae Sung to Arthur and the three go out for dinner and drinks in which we truly see the way language informs Nora’s character. At a certain point, she stops translating from English to Korean, speaking solely in the latter with Hae Sung – leaving Arthur out of the conversation. Arthur does not object nor interrupt, but it is clear that part of him is upset. Nora is immersed in the conversation with Hae Sung and it turns quite intimate, the camera eventually closing in on the two, excluding Arthur physically as well. The two speculate about who they were to one another in their own past life, conversing lightheartedly about their in-yun. In an abrupt change in tone, Hae Sung finally explains something to Nora what she already knew – that her ambitions and her dreams pulled them apart. He tells her, “You had to leave because you’re you. And the reason I liked you is because you’re you.” This scene at the bar is a crucial point of understanding and acceptance, not only for Nora and Hae Sung, but also for Hae Sung and Arthur. When Nora steps away, Hae Sung, despite the struggle to express himself in English, tells Arthur that they have in-yun, too. This moment exhibits the tremendous amount of respect that these men have for one another, deftly challenging the genre’s typical portrayals of masculinity.
In the final scene, while Nora watches Hae Sung leave, she walks back over to her front stoop and bursts into tears as Arthur comforts her. Although their lives return back to how they were at the beginning of the film, their outlook on life, love and connection have irrevocably changed. This ending signifies the long overdue closure that Nora needed, not only for her relationship with Hae Sung, but her relationship with all of the versions of herself that she used to be, in all of the different nations and identities she had to inhabit – all of her own past lives. Nora finally learns that in-yun itself is this emotionally laborious process of acceptance which creates true understanding – an understanding of others and an understanding of oneself.
Recent stories about Asian Americans have included some form of subversion. Last year’s crowd-pleasing, Oscar-winning, Everything Everywhere All at Once subverted a plethora of genre clichés, avoided stereotypes and used the spectacle of interdimensional travel in order to delicately explore and critique the model minority myth, gender roles, family dynamics and relationships from an Asian American point of view. Past Lives functions the same way, smartly subverting expectations, avoiding stereotypes and genre tropes in order to display an authentic, complex and nuanced portrayal of Song’s own personal experience as a first generation Korean immigrant. The film is indeed gorgeous in its sleek visual minimalism and seamless technical style, however, its compelling characters and thematic richness are what leaves a lasting impression. Providing Asian American characters, particularly a female artist like Nora, with this level of agency is nothing short of revolutionary for this genre and for modern cinema itself. Like Arthur, we must graciously accept that we may not always understand another person’s cultural experience, but simply making the attempt, practicing patience and exercising gentleness and sympathy can make our world just that much bigger.