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The Beautiful ‘Past Lives’ Was Predestined for Greatness



There is destiny, and then there is inyeon (or in-yeon). It’s one of those beautiful non-English words that hardly translates from its native language. But after watching Past Lives (in theaters June 2), you’ll never forget the meaning of it. You’ll be looking for it everywhere, longing for the depth of feeling it describes—the kind you’ll feel while watching this heartbreakingly brilliant, beautifully crafted film.

Inyeon is a Korean word, speaking to the Buddhist belief of a spiritual, predestined bond between two people. Soulmates don’t just find each other, 24-year-old Nora (Greta Lee) explains to her new friend (and future husband) Arthur (John Magaro), as they sit outside on a beautiful summer night in Montauk. Per inyeon, soulmates are two people who have dug through 8,000 layers of history—of lives—in order to make their fated connection. They are meant to be together in some way, whether it’s as two humans who fall in love or as a tree and its strongest branch.

While Nora laughs off the concept as “something Koreans say to seduce each other,” Past Lives takes inyeon to heart. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Celine Song, the movie follows two childhood friends, whose unspoken love for each other remains challenged by distance, time, and that inarticulable idea of inyeon.

Courtesy of Twenty Years Rights/A24 Films

Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora, who he remembers as Na Young, will never be together: Theirs will be, the film’s prologue of sorts makes clear, but a fleeting, if powerful, childhood crush. But when the pair reconnect 12 years later, as adults on other sides of the world, they reconsider whether their affection was fleeting after all—a painful question, one which rarely bodes satisfying answers.

In the time since they last spoke, Nora has left Toronto and recently moved to New York, to pursue an MFA in playwriting; Hae Sung studies engineering back in Seoul. Nora’s casual Facebook search of schoolmates from her past back in Korea brokers a chance reconnection between the two, fostered by increasingly frequent Skype calls and distracted daydreams about what may happen should they reunite in-person.


It’s from this chapter of the film onward where Past Lives begins to show its cards. Song is not interested in telling a love story, one that neatly pushes its leads toward each other. Instead, she is dedicated to keeping Nora and Hae Sung apart—from the fact that they are subject to the whims of an internet connection and 13-hour time difference, to the way that the film intentionally keeps them in separate frames throughout. Song makes literal the distance between Hae Sung and Nora, both physically and romantically, through framing that separates them; they communicate via Skype, boxed into computer and smartphone windows, staring across a virtual ocean. Even when they finally meet in-person again for the first time in 24 years, they each stand alone in a frame, cutting between them for a wrenchingly long time, until they are finally afforded a chance to hold each other in the same shot.

The obvious infallibility of their potential to be together is one so cinematically powerful as to render body-shaking sobs from a sensitive viewer (it’s me, I’m the sensitive viewer). Song’s script is at once vulnerable and implicit, with her direction revealing as much of the emotional honesty as her fantastic leads. Yoo, in particular, is a stand-out; he communicates his Hae Sung’s deep-rooted affection in expertly drawn, uncertain body language and long pauses, as he reckons with his love for his childhood friend.

It is never lost on us that our two leads are fostering something impossible; they have clear-cut professional figures and dreams that cannot withstand their distance. When Nora cuts things off for, as we learn, another 12 years, it’s heartbreaking, but not because we have hope that the couple could become a couple. We know her late-night conversations with Hae Sung, about their hopes and dreams and desires, are of a painfully doomed nature, the kind that draws people emotionally close but never physically. Watching Hae Sung and Nora quietly fall for each other—or, perhaps, for the allure of rekindling something meaningful to their long-gone childhood selves—is moving in its graciousness, gutting in its impossibility.

As much as Past Lives wants to respect Hae Sung and Nora’s emotional connection, it does so without disrespecting the relationship she has with Arthur—he is, after all, the one whose relationship most benefited from inyeon. A love story that does not force a triangle or a villain out of the “other man” is an all-too-rare thing; Arthur is far from the bad guy, in a story that has none. His love for Nora is always made clear, his desire for closeness expressed without self-consciousness, in ways that Hae Sung’s affection never can be. (A beautiful sequence finds Arthur telling Nora that he wishes to learn Korean, to understand what she’s saying when she talks in her sleep.) To him, Hae Sung notes toward the film’s end, Nora is “the one who always leaves.” But to Arthur, Nora is “the one who stays.”

Jon Pack/Twenty Years Rights/A24 Films

So too is Past Lives, a film whose staying power is irrefutable but never forcefully so. Perhaps it’s inyeon at work—we, as viewers, have trudged through 8,000 layers of our own possible existences, as blades of grass and dew drops, stray cats and street rats, or telephone poles and wires, to land on the same plane as Song’s incredible film. While Hae Sung and Nora must say goodbye at the end, their parting is bittersweet, not painstaking; so, too, is this beautifully taut, revelatory, unforgettable film.

Source: The Daily Beast


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