This story contains spoilers about ‘Past Lives’.
The merit of the film Past Lives, written and directed by Korean Canadian Celine Song, is not its grandiose scale or beautiful scenery, but in its astutely controlled plot and action.
The movie, now nominated for 2024 Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, portrays two people whose lives intertwine between the past and the present by using the theme of inyeon.
Inyeon is popularly understood to mean something like fate or destiny, referring to the ties between people over the course of their lives. As Korean studies professor Sarah Son explains, inyeon “in Korean Buddhism, in (因) refers to ‘direct cause’ and yeon (緣) to ‘indirect cause,’ or the conditions that make an outcome possible.
As a scholar who has examined digital technologies and transnational Korean culture and Korean film, and a person who immigrated twice with two daughters as Song’s family did (the U.S. first and later to Canada), I was immersed in the movie.
I found myself reflecting on how the film stands in comparison to other films by Korean or Korean American directors depicting Korean immigrants to the Americas —and sympathizing with the personal decisions portrayed in the film.
Korean immigrant stories
A variety of previous movies, either directed by Korean directors or Korean American directors, such as The Deep Blue Night (1985), Never Forever (2007), and Minari (2020), touched on Korean immigrants who came to the U.S.
These movies represented transnational struggles of Koreans who immigrated to the U.S. to fulfill American dreams.
Unlike these films, Past Lives shows a middle-class family in South Korea who decides to pursue a different life in Canada.
The protagonist, Na Young/Nora (acted by Greta Lee), has a father who is a filmmaker, while her mother is an artist. This movie shows a modern-day diaspora family story: the family leaves South Korea not for survival, but for the achievement of their ambitions.
The film depicts lesser-seen stories of Koreans in the late 20th and early 21st centuries who have pursued immigration to be successful as professionals in various fields, including in cultural areas.
Na Young, who takes the western name Nora, later moves to the U.S. to major in literature, as she wants to be a writer.
Twelve years later, she reconnects with her childhood friend Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) on Facebook, symbolizing the kind of modern-day communication possible for people living diaspora lives.
The advent of social media, including the now-defunct South Korean platform Cyworld, Facebook and Instagram, have facilitated inter-continental communications, and therefore, the formation of inter-continental communities.
Immigrants, particularly younger generations, use digital technologies to connect with their families, relatives and friends back home, therefore shrinking the distance and time difference.
Greta Lee and Teo Yoo delicately act their roles as Na Young/Nora and Hae Sung, and as actors with personal experience of transcontinental life and diaspora cultures their seemingly imperfect Korean accents make them modern-day immigrants.
Limits of online connection
Na Young and Hae Sung could not fulfil their first destiny (inyeon) when they were elementary school students due to Na Young’s family immigrating to Canada.
Eventually, they start dating online. They continuously talk, laugh and spend time, as if they want to talk as much as possible. However, their online networks don’t provide enough momentum for them to continue dating, and potentially their next move.
When Nora asks Hae Sung to come to New York, Hae Sung is hesitant because he plans to learn Chinese for a year or two, and Nora is not able to wait for him. She doesn’t want to continue her online dating with Hae Sung and goes to an artist residency. There, she meets Arthur (John Magaro) and they sense a mutual attraction and the possibility of love.
Another twist of fate?
At that moment, the movie astutely introduces another fateful development between Nora and Arthur. One beautiful night, Nora and Arthur have dinner in a garden at the artist residency, and Nora starts to explain what inyeon means in Korea to Arthur:
“There is a word in Korean, inyeon. It’s specifically about relationships between people … If two people get married, they say it’s because there have been 8,000 layers of inyeon over 8,000 lifetimes.”
As writers and inyeon-guided spouses, they move back to New York.
First and second loves
Twelve years later, Hae Sung still wants to check his inyeon with Na Young and finally visits New York. Hae Sung has continued to love her.
In New York, Na Young guides Hae Sung to a few tourist places, and she invites Hae Sung home to introduce him to Arthur. When they eat out and drink together at a bar, the movie provides its climax, in a calm, but sorrowful tone.
Na Young and Hae Sung talk to each other in Korean while Arthur is sitting next to her. Arthur looks worried, because he does not understand Korean but can read their feelings.
‘Something in our past lives’
Hae Sung finally expresses his mind in front of Na Young’s husband, saying to Na Young: “When you stopped talking 12 years ago, I really missed you.”
However, Na Young replies:
“I think there was something in our past lives. But in this life, we don’t have the inyeon to be that kind of person to each other.”
From this moment, Nora is not Na Young anymore, but Hae Sung may continue to remember her as Na Young, his childhood friend and crush.
Accepting the end of some fates
Past Lives is a beautiful story of lost love and childhood crushes. The two final scenes are touching because of the unfulfilled love between two people.
When people’s destiny together (their inyeon) ends, one party sends another party away with sorrow and agony, while the leaving party moves to another stage of his or her life.
Nora’s crying to her husband Arthur after saying goodbye to Hae Sung, and Hae Sung’s departure to the airport via Uber, dexterously portrays the end of Na Young and Hae Sung’s connection.
This is a must-see, heart-wrenching movie that leaves viewers with a tranquil mind about the sadness of endings — because these exist alongside the beautiful possibility of multiple loves.
Dal Yong Jin, Professor, School of Communication, Simon Fraser University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Lead Image Credit: A24