The concept of In-yun (인연) and the 8000 lifetimes were what first got me hooked up to Celine Song’s Past Lives. In-yun itself is a Korean term rooted in Buddhism that references the strings of providence that tie people together throughout each reincarnated life. Throughout my upbringing in the practice of Buddhism, one concept remained etched in my memory from the earliest of recollections: the idea that every person you encounter, even in the briefest of exchanges like the gentle brushing of clothing while passing on the street, likely shared a connection in a past life. And when it comes to marriage, the belief is that it's the culmination of 8000 layers of in-yun, slowly amassed over the course of 8000 lifetimes.
Premiering at Sundance earlier this year, Past Lives holds three different themes: the immigrant experience, lost soulmates, and a good ol’ “one-last-time” story. It unfolds around two childhood sweethearts in Seoul, separated by the contrasting paths their lives take. Na Young (Greta Lee) relocates to Toronto with her family, while Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) follows a more traditional journey in South Korea. Na Young’s sudden move to Toronto caught Hae Sung off guard, leaving him visibly upset as they bid farewell in a small alleyway. 12 years later, they reconnect in the digital realm for a brief moment before Na Young (now Nora) meets her future husband, Arthur (John Magaro). Another 12 years passed and Hae Sung goes on a 14-hour flight to New York to see his childhood best friend one more time.
The What Ifs
I believe the question of "what if" often lingers in the back of our minds, and this was especially true for Hae Sung. On his last night in New York, the three of them, Hae Sung, Nora, and Arthur, went to a bar and engaged in a lengthy conversation. Hae Sung delved into a profound question: "If you had never left Seoul, would I still have looked for you?" He explored the many possibilities of their relationship, both in this lifetime and the alternative if Nora had stayed in Korea. Questions arose about their happiness together, Hae Sung's actions, and whether his feelings were genuine or based on idealized notions of a perfect life.
He said, "The reason I liked you is because you’re you. And who you are is someone who leaves." Hae Sung appeared to be trapped in the memory of Nora leaving him in Korea when they were 12. Over the 24-year span, Nora had transformed into a completely different person, while Hae Sung had remained largely unchanged. This contrast was reflected in their costume design; he consistently wore blue, while she embraced change. Personally, I don't believe Hae Sung would have loved her if she had stayed. His longing seemed to stem from her absence, creating a kind of idealized image in his mind.
Towards the end of the movie, Hae Sung uttered a line that deeply resonated with me: "What if this is a past life as well, and we are already something else to each other in our next life? Who do you think we are then?”
What makes Past Lives stand out from other ordinary romance movies with similar themes is Song's deep and meaningful questions. The film takes a close look at the immigrant experience and explores how cultural identities change over time, shaping our relationships. In one of the scenes, Arthur had told Nora, “you never sleep talk in English, you only dream in Korean” and that he gets somewhat scared “because you dream in a language that I can't understand. It’s like there’s this whole place inside of you where I can’t go.” John Magaro does a fantastic job as Arthur, who tries his best to learn about her culture but is permanently limited by invisible cultural thresholds. It's not as straightforward as just learning a language, as some have suggested Arthur should do to improve things with Nora. Imagine growing up in different cultures and speaking different languages. No matter how much you learn, there's always a sense that you can never truly comprehend the other person, and I deeply relate to Arthur in this regard.
Expanding on topics like cultural differences, personal growth, and feeling disconnected from one's heritage, Past Lives isn't primarily a love story; it's more like a reflection on what immigration means for our existence. For Nora, Hae Sung represents not only her first love but also a cherished connection to her past life and culture. I believe that the quietness in this movie, depicting lost love and forgotten identities, is at the core of its philosophy.
The Silence, The Slow Burn and The Achingly Beautiful Visuals
The movie is the epitome of contemplative, meditative cinema. In a different context, under different circumstances, I can see the spell of the movie being neutralized by the surrounding chaos. As is, I was met head-on by what it had to offer. Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography attempts to capture silence, evident in Nora’s reunion with Hae Sung decades after the two saw each other for the last time. As she takes him around New York, the city only acts as a picturesque background because it’s actually the landscape of lost memories that the two of them are traversing. Those moments of silence that punctuate their conversations are more revealing than anything they can say to each other.
As Celine Song's Past Lives nears its conclusion, two longtime friends stand together, waiting by a vibrant blue garage door for a cab. In those two minutes, a world of emotions stirs, although no words are exchanged. Song beautifully captures the unspoken, the feelings conveyed through pauses and gestures. And as the film builds towards its emotional peak, silence reigns, speaking volumes without uttering a single word. In a fleeting moment, there was a glimpse of Hae Sung and Nora as 12-year-olds standing before each other in the same alleyway where they parted ways 24 years ago. The setting had changed; it was now at night, in contrast to the bright daylight of their first encounter. To me, this scene felt like a long-overdue 'goodbye' between friends who couldn't have it back then because they were too young to comprehend all that had transpired. In that brief, unspoken moment, both the two adults and their inner children were bidding farewell.
What It's About, Really
I would like to think that in the end this was a story of closure. Celine Song explained in an interview that “the movie is in 3 goodbyes. They say goodbye as children, they say goodbye as youths, and then they also say goodbye at the end of the movie when they’re fully grown ups. When Haesung flew 14 hours to New York to see Nora one more time, he wants to show up there and he wants to close the door. I don’t think Nora knew that she also needed to close the door. Once they were able to say goodbye, that’s when Nora were able to say goodbye to the little girl that she left behind in Korea. Because I don’t think she knew that she needed to say goodbye until Haesung comes to visit. And for Haesung, he’s just happy to have properly been able to say goodbye to his friend.”
Past Lives foregoes all of these ideas while simultaneously tapping into the longings many of us have deep in our hearts while still allowing them to play out in meaningful reality. The idea behind this led us to craft our special Connection Bracelet, carefully created to be bought in pairs. It's a lasting symbol of the profound connection between two people. The connected chains represent your strong bond, one that can't be broken. Meanwhile, the red string, a symbol of protection and good luck, serves as a gentle reminder to treasure and strengthen what's truly important. This bracelet is more than just jewelry; it's a testament to the enduring power of the connection you both have, a tangible representation of the “In-Yun” that ties your souls together through countless lifetimes.
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