“Past Lives”: simple concept, deep execution

“Past Lives”

3.5/5 ***-

“Past Lives,” directed by Celine Song, is a 2023 drama and one of the Best Picture nominees in the 94th Oscars. The film tells the story of Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), two childhood crushes living in Seoul who were separated when Nora’s family immigrated to Toronto, Canada. After 12 years, the two reconnect online before losing touch again. Twelve years later, the two reconnect again when Hae Sung visits Nora and her husband, Arthur (John Magraro) in New York. 

The story was very emotional and engaging and was both simple in concept and complex in execution. Song adds so many layers to such a simple story, showing how complex each of our lives are. The film starts off with one of the end scenes, with Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur sitting at a bar. However, it is from the perspective of two bystanders from across the room trying to guess what their relationships to one another are, each guess having one sliver of the truth but the conclusion being horribly off. These characters and their relationships with one another are extremely complex, and the assumptions of two people-watchers are not going to accurately reflect who they are. 

A big theme in the film is the concept of in-yun, which Nora describes as “providence or fate. But it’s specifically about relationships between people.” Essentially, it is the idea that the interactions of two people are fate, and in each past life they also had a connection. If two people get married, then that means that they had 8,000 layers of in-yun or 8,000 past lives worth of interactions. 

Nora first explains in-yun to Arthur (and by extension the audience) when they first meet on a writing retreat, and they learn that they both happen to live in New York and have similar interests. The two end up dating and eventually get married. Reconnecting with Nora 25 years later, Hae Sung asks what would have happened if Nora and her family had not left Seoul. Would they have started dating? Broken up? Got married? Would Nora have left Seoul anyway to achieve her big dreams? What if they had not lost touch again after first reconnecting? 

This film really makes the audience consider the “what-ifs” of life. It is an interesting concept to think about, but also an easy concept to get lost in and ignore what is occurring. By the time Hae Sung visits New York, he is in a rough patch with his long-term girlfriend and seems to have lost himself in his “what-ifs.” He at first denies that his trip to New York was to see Nora, but when he finally sees her he accepts that was his goal. At the end, Hae Sung considers if they are currently living in a past life, and wondering what the next life would bring, and the two part ways. 

This film is overall very good; however, there were elements that were not for me. I am not the biggest fan of love triangles, but the film subverts the trope enough that each character’s relationship with one another felt realistic. I also felt that Nora and Arthur’s relationship was a little underdeveloped. I know that the main focus was between Nora and Hae Sung, but I wish that I got more of Nora and Arthur as well. Despite my criticisms, I still really enjoyed this film. Each character was so unique and well-rounded, with complex emotions and goals. I love that the film wants to consider, if one thing was different, how drastically people’s lives would change.