The movie opens with three people, sitting at a bar in New York. The woman, Nora, and the man, Hae Sung, both of Korean descent, are chatting with each other. The other man, Arthur, who’s white, looks on. The voices of onlookers filter in as they try to speculate the relationships these three have with each other. Are the two Asians siblings, or a couple? Is the white guy their tour guide, or the woman’s boyfriend? It’s just casual speculation, with the onlookers seeing only the ending of their story.
A flashback to 24 years earlier shows Nora — then known as Na Young — and Hae Sung, as classmates and childhood friends in Seoul, South Korea. They walk home together everyday after school, and it’s clear that they’re close friends, or even childhood sweethearts. However, Nora and her family will soon immigrate to Canada, resulting in her and Hae Sung losing touch.
Twelve years later, on a whim, Nora (Greta Lee) decides to look for Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) online. She is now an aspiring playwright in Toronto, while Hae Sung is an engineering student in Seoul. Upon discovering that he has reached out to try and contact her before, they reconnect on Facebook.
finThey soon spend hours video-chatting, and while it’s apparent that their bond is still there, Nora realizes their video chats are taking up too much time from the parts of her life that aren’t with Hae Sung.
It’s then that she tells Hae Sung they should take a break, for a while. During this period, Nora meets Arthur (John Magaro), a fellow writer. She tells Arthur about inyeon, the Korean word for a connection between two people, which she laughs off as “something Koreans say to seduce each other.” But while Nora dismisses the term, the movie itself gives a perfect example as to the meaning of the word.
Another 12 years pass. Nora is now living in New York and married to Arthur. Hae Sung decides to visit New York on vacation, and him and Nora meet up when he arrives. It’s been 24 years since they’ve last seen each other in-person. After Nora comes home after spending the day with Hae Sung, Arthur remarks to Nora that if this were a story, he would be “the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.” But the reality is, this is a movie without an antagonist.
It’s a movie about regular people, doing the best with their situation and circumstances, wondering about the what-ifs and seeing the choices they have made and how that has resulted in the life they have now. Nora and Hae Sung are drawn back together no matter the distance, maybe through a product of love and friendship, or of going back to something that was a huge part of their childhood, or of inyeon. Maybe a combination of all three.
Director Celine Song tells a wonderfully precious story that perfectly captures how deep the relationships we make in our lives can run. Inyeon also features the concept that two people who marry have supposedly dug through 8,000 years of history to wind up together. Hae Sung tells Nora that to him, Nora is someone who leaves, but for Arthur, she is someone who stays.
As Hae Sung asks Nora what she thinks they were in a past life, she jokingly replies that perhaps they were a bird and the branch the bird sat on. As they chat, sitting at a bar in New York, a mirror image of the first scene, he tells her the questions that have been on his mind. If she had stayed in Korea, would they have dated? Broken up? Married and had kids? These are rhetorical questions he tells, a showcase of all the what-ifs we all have plaguing our own lives. There are many things keeping them apart in this lifetime, through the acting of many things, but there is also much keeping them together, in their past, present, and future lives.
Through every scene, “Past Lives” is the epitome of a quietly melancholy and thought-provoking story. Nora and Hae Sung are not exactly lovers, and not exactly friends, but the need for a title is filled by inyeon.