During Celine Song’s exquisite and delicate PAST LIVES – a deeply human film about the pain of missed chances and the hard truths – they introduce the Korean phrase “In-Yun”. The concept of “In-Yun” speaks about fate and predestination. It says that the lives you lived previously, and how the minute connections we make throughout our time in this world, reverberate through the layers of life until they finally coalesce for people to find each other.
For Nora (a spellbinding Greta Lee), it’s Korean nonsense and only brought up as an attempt to seduce her future husband Arthur (John Magaro). For her childhood friend, Jung Hae Sung (Yoo Teo, charming and full of beautiful anguish), who is “very Korean” in both mannerisms and sensibilities, it gives him hope that his path will once again cross with Nora, their journey intertwined, having hopefully reached the 8000 layers of “In-Yun” that finally allows them to be together.
It’s 2000, and 12-year-old Nora Moon is about to emigrate to Canada. She’s leaving behind her Korean name Na Young, her childhood crush Hae Sung, and a Seoul life too small for her big Nobel Prize-filled ambitions. The two children – best friends and mutual crushes – have an innocent affection for each other and a juvenile worldview, making their impending separation all the more painful. As they depart their fateful first date, Hae Sung’s single and abrupt “bye” shows his misguided youthful virtuousness that prevents him from engaging with his sincere emotions. The end of the date signals her leaving Korea, leaving behind her childhood as she ascends the stairs to her new world outside of the confines of the Korean culture she bemoans.
“In a narrative structure that echoes Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, Song sets her gorgeous, intimate portrait of love, regret, and whether fate and desire align across three time frames, each separated by twelve years.”
In a narrative structure that echoes Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, Song sets her gorgeous, intimate portrait of love, regret, and whether fate and desire align across three time frames, each separated by twelve years. In 2012, the two long-lost best friends reconnect after they find each other through Facebook. Their exchanges begin timid and frightful, their lives having metamorphosed from their simple 12-year-old selves. Hae Sung has spent five years doing mandatory military service. In contrast, Nora has had years in western school, slowly acclimating to those western ways that have stripped a bit of her Korean identity away. She no longer speaks Korean with anyone but her mother, who doesn’t even call her Na Young anymore.
The duo’s Skype conversations become increasingly frequent, their intimate conversations never turning sexual, but the carnal tension beneath is palpable. Song perfectly captures the ignorance to new love’s transience and the spark of newly rekindled love, complete with cheesy grins and prolonged goodbyes in a perfectly pitched montage that involves recollecting their childhood together. Specifically that Nora – who was once a crybaby – no longer cries since “nobody cared anymore”, so she had to suck it up. For Nora, Hae Sung was one important person who cared not just when she cried but would provide comfort for her in his early teens. Hae Sung, now in his 20s, continues comforting those people emotionally hurt as the opening scenes of the 2012 segment show him consoling his crying friend.
There’s a small, subtle exchange in the 2024 section of Song’s intimate, tender film. Having met up in New York with the ‘vacationing’ Hae Sung, Nora mentions how she returned to Seoul years earlier and attempted to contact him. It’s never said directly, nor does Hae Sung probe into her motivations for it. Still, the implication and subtext of Greta Lee’s stunning performance perhaps indicate Nora was trying to see if Arthur was who she wanted. Perhaps she wants to see if the “In-Yun” pull of Hae Sung was stronger than her ambitions and affection for a good man – one that can get her a green card, furthering her career opportunities. 2024 Hae Sung, who is deliberating over the idea of an impending proposal, feels like the mirror image of this. He’s faked a vacation to see the girl he hasn’t been on the same continent as for 24 years. For the two friends, though, there is only a shadow of a memory retained: a distortedly affectionate image in their heads of that little girl and little boy experiencing a crush and the 20-something kids who would provide such distant affection to each other that it would give Nora a literal skip in her step.
But longing and desire can only go so far as this platonic love story complicates matters for both their settled lives. Husband Arthur – played by a career-best and wonderfully vulnerable John Magano – is on the periphery. Indeed, the opening shot shows the two friends together, facing toward each other, with Arthur just off to the side. Song even plays it for anguished laughs at Arthur’s helpless misery. It’s not his story, but Magano’s pain is felt rippling through the fabric of what their bond means as he says to Nora while the two lie together, “your story is better” (which it is). Best friends separated by huge ambitions and cultural expectations, reunited 25 years later? It’s been done to death, but Song refreshingly and deftly inverts that love triangle trope in a way that’s less about tempting Nora with infidelity and more about reminding her of Seoul life and the pieces of her innocence she left behind. These are mature adults sorting through their heightened emotions healthily and through respect. As they say themselves, they’re no longer the babies they were.
“Affair movies like David Lean’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER and Park Chan-Wook’s DECISION TO LEAVE use the idea of longing for a partner other than your own as the basis for their plots and character motivations. Instead, Song’s movie tackles those minute connotations of missed opportunities by holding herself back from romanticising the duo’s relationship.”
Affair movies like David Lean’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER and Park Chan-Wook’s DECISION TO LEAVE use the idea of longing for a partner other than your own as the basis for their plots and character motivations. Instead, Song’s movie tackles those minute connotations of missed opportunities by holding herself back from romanticising the duo’s relationship. By embracing this Korean idea of “In-Yun”, Song weaves the lives of Nora and Hae Sung together, bound not just by fate and friendship for the next thousands of layers but teaching these mature characters that the concept itself is trivial in the grand scheme – they can only live their life the way it has gone. What will be, will be.
Song composes this lyrical, melancholic film with the confidence of a director at the height of their career. She finds pathos in the potentially mundane creases of a marital bed and a poor internet connection. Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s contribution – an elegant tinkling score – bolsters the emotional intensity. Shabier Kirchner’s soft lights, reflections, and deep colour palette glaze the film in tranquility and highlights ideas around the refracted lives stuck in thousands of layers of longing.
It’s often spouted that great visual effects, long takes and bombastic action scenes are “movie magic”, but the things that look simple are often the hardest to accomplish. PAST LIVES perfectly flows from beat to beat with aching precision and evokes guttural melancholy over and over again. Emotions are sometimes the hardest thing to achieve in film, often manipulative and intrusively persuasive, but what heights of emotion Song achieves in such little time is a masterfully refined craft: a simple, final shot of Nora crying is “movie magic”.