“Past Lives”: What does it mean to have inyeon?

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

On June 23, 2023, “Past Lives” saw theatrical release in the United States. Director Celine Song’s debut has since been marked as one of the greatest films of 2023 and is a remarkable saga on the timelessness of romance and the vast universe of connections between all of us. The movie centers around Nora Moon (Greta Lee, “Russian Doll”) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo, “Love to Hate You”). Nora Moon grows up as Moon Na Young in South Korea alongside her childhood friend Hae Sung as they go to school together, walk home together and become each other’s first love. However, soon Na Young’s family decides to immigrate to Canada, leading Na Young to adopt a new name and leave Hae Sung and her childhood behind.

Before she leaves, Hae Sung asks why Na Young is immigrating. Na Young replies, “Because Koreans don’t win Nobel Prizes for literature.”

For 12 years, Na Young grows up as Nora in the U.S. before a chance search for Hae Sung on Facebook reveals that he has also been searching for her. Na Young is now a playwright in New York City but has not won anything just yet while Hae Sung just completed his mandatory military service in South Korea.

The two begin connecting online in a long-distance friendship of sorts that burns to become something more. The countless hours they spend talking, staying up until odd hours and waiting to hear the telltale Skype ringtone feel almost unfinished and unresolved. They have reconnected at an awkward time in their lives, as Nora is about to move to a writer’s retreat, and Hae Sung is about to start studying abroad in China. As the distance between the two becomes too much to bear, Nora breaks off contact to focus on her career, fully intending to rekindle their connection later in life. It seems like a classic case of “right person, wrong time.”

But life does not wait around. Both Hae Sung and Nora move on with different partners. At the writer’s retreat, Nora meets Arthur (John Magaro, “First Cow”), another writer from New York City. He is kind, has the same interest in writing, lives close by and, most importantly, is there.

He is there at the same retreat, at the same time as Nora and is

right in front of her. The night they meet, Nora tells Arthur about the Korean idea of “inyeon” while the fire flickers in their faces. “Inyeon” is the connection between people — the red string of fate which tangles together across different lifetimes. Inyeon can be falling in love with someone, asking your friend for a ride home or ordering from the waiter at the restaurant you go to when there is no food in the fridge.

“If two strangers walk by each other on the street and their clothes accidentally brush, that means there have been 8,000 layers of inyeon between them,” Na Young says to Arthur. While they laugh it off as a joke in the movie, this moment is where the film reveals itself. Celine Song is telling us — as we sit silently in the dark of the theater — even this is inyeon.

Every moment of connection in our lives is the burden we carry to the next; every moment is unfinished until we build up those 8,000 layers of inyeon, and therefore, there is no such thing as “right person, wrong time.” Every moment of connection with someone else is then inherently sacred and more infinite than our mere lifetimes. After Nora has been married to Arthur for 12 years, Hae Sung comes to New York City to visit her. She introduces Hae Sung and Arthur to each other, and a whirlwind of emotions begin.

Nora’s marriage with Arthur and her old flame with Hae Sung reveal themes of identity, culture and destiny. “Past Lives” is filled with catharsis, tiptoeing the balance between simple tenderness and overwhelming revelation; in the same breath, audience members were chuckling and sniffling silent tears. Song’s debut film is a must-watch of 2023 and is a meditative experience unlikely to be forgotten; you will undoubtedly leave with a little more inyeon than you carried in.