It might have been relegated to the status of a first date question, making it slightly kitsch-y, but it still bears asking, what to you is fate? The concept of In-Yun (in-yeon) (fate in Korean but doesn’t quite do justice to it) is one of those non-English words that encapsulates a gamut of emotions, thereby escaping definition. But Celine Song‘s directorial debut, Past Lives, explains to us what it really means. The Korean term In-Yun refers to the Buddhist notion that a spiritual, predestined link exists between two individuals or is like a reincarnation-bridging butterfly effect. Based on her real-life story, “Past Lives” is a melancholy what-if tale about two childhood sweethearts whose silent love for one another is threatened by distance, time, and that inexplicable concept of In-Yun.
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The leading cast includes Greta Lee (Nora earlier Na Young), who is best known for starring as Maxine in the Netflix comedy-drama series Russian Doll, and popular K-drama actor Teo Yoo (Hae Sung), last seen in the Netflix hit show Love to Hate You. The story starts with Nora’s family immigrating to Canada from Seoul, which leads to Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora (Greta Lee) having to stay apart. After some years, Nora relocated from Toronto to New York to pursue an MFA in playwriting, while Hae Sung is still in Seoul studying engineering.
But an accidental reunion between the two is sparked by Nora’s casual Facebook search for old Korean school friends, which is then followed by their regular late-night Skype talks and all-day texting and daydreaming of what will happen if they meet up in person. But Nora realises that she is getting too distracted to focus on her studies and decides to take a break from this unnamed relationship.
The duo eventually reunite in person for the first time in 24 years, and the film repeatedly cuts between them before giving them the opportunity to be held together in the same frame. This might disturb some hopeless romantics like me because, by the time they actually meet, Nora is married to a white Jewish guy named Arthur. Celine brings out this story through her direction. The finale scene stands out in particular, where Hae Sung masterfully conveys intense attachment through hesitant body language and extended pauses as he wrestles with his love for his teenage friend.
Past Lives not only recognises the emotional childhood bond between Nora and Hae Sung but also manages to do it without undermining her marriage with Arthur, who after all was the one who gained the most from the concept of In-Yun. In general, it is very hard to find a love story that does not attempt to create a love triangle or make the other man into a villain; in such a romance, Arthur is by no means the antagonist. Nora is “the one who always leaves” in his eyes, Hae Sung quips towards the movie’s conclusion. But Nora is “the one who stays” in Arthur’s eyes.
The same can be said for Past Lives, a movie with undeniable staying power that is never forced. Perhaps this is the effect of In-Yun at work. While Hae Sung and Nora must part ways at the end, their separation is heart wrecking but sweet at the same time, just like this exquisitely precise, revelatory, and unforgettable movie.
Past Lives also features some visually stunning cinematography which helps viewers to storyline much better. The costumes of the movie deserve a special mention because as the story starts moving you can’t help but notice the change in the character’s nature from their clothing, especially Nora.
When the movie eventually gets over, I felt a huge lump in my throat and sobbed more freely that I have in years. Perhaps because of the anonymity provided by the darkness, you are seen but not noticed. Kudos to Celine Song who managed to create this stunning masterpiece. Past Lives is set to release on July 7 in India.