Saturday, July 8, 2023

Past Lives & In-yun 인연


In Celine Song's feature directorial debut Past Lives, one of the film's lead characters, Nora (Greta Lee) explains the concept of in-yun to Arthur (John Magaro) the man that will eventually become her husband. In-yun is one of those concepts that only exists in languages more nuanced than English. 

In the director's own words, "In-yun is basically about how you can’t control who walks into your life...and who stays in your life. That to me is at the heart of the film. It’s about the ineffable thing...about every relationship, even the person who brushes up against you, even you and me who’s sitting here.”

In-yun assigns a sort of elastic nature to time, and the relationships in our lives. It asserts that even the smallest interaction, like bumping up against someone on the street, happens because at some point in our past lives, our two souls were connected in some way, and that connection, in-yun, has drawn you back toward each other. Perhaps in another life I was a branch, and you were a bird that landed on that branch. Perhaps we were lovers. Maybe you were an ocean and I was a fish.

It could be very easy to consider in-yun and make it into something worth despairing. You could easily perceive is as "what could have been." You could consider the concept and use it as ammunition for resentment, and be hurt that the person you want today was maybe more connected to you in a past life. That certainly wouldn't help any of the longing that I feel in my heart today. So I have decided see the hope in the idea.

The film follows childhood friends Nora and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) whose childhood romance is cut short when Nora's family immigrates to North America from Korea. Twelve years pass, and the two reconnect through social media and have a whirlwind, long-distance flirtation. This is cut short, too, when Nora decides, because of the distance and the branching paths of their lives, that the two would be better off not speaking. Another twelve years pass. Nora is now married to a man in New York City, and Hae Sung finally decides to come visit her. Everything about Nora has changed, but Hae Sung is still in love with the girl he fell in love with when they were children.

Hae Sung's trip is selfish. He has just broken up with his girlfriend back home. He still remembers the love in his heart for Nora that he has held on to for the past 24 years. He knows she is married. He visits anyway.

What follows is not a typical love triangle, or "will they/won't they" type of story. And it would be the easy thing, narratively, to have Nora's American husband Arthur serve as the villain keeping the two star-crossed lovers apart. Past Lives paints the scene with a much more thoughtful and emotionally mature brush. There remains an undeniable connection between Hae Sung and Nora, both personally and culturally that Nora's relationship with Arthur simply can not replicate. But there is an equal but different type of bond that connects Nora and Arthur. The interplay between the three main characters is uncomfortable and true to life, but there is never a feeling of any real threat to Nora and Arthur's marriage. Not once was I as a viewer worried that there would be an issue of infidelity. Both of these men love Nora, and both men yearn to connect with her in the way the the other is able to. (For example, Arthur has been trying to learn Korean.) But instead of this making these men into enemies or competitors they simply...handle uncomfortable emotions like adults. It sounds simple, but it's something not seen often enough put to the screen. 

In a scene where Nora steps away from the bar, Arthur and Hae Sung are left alone together. Hae Sung tells Arthur that there is in-yun between them, too. These men are here, meeting like this because of a spiritual connection. Because they meant something to each other in a past life.


In the ending moments of the film, Nora stands by Hae Sung's side as he waits for his Uber back to the airport. The moment is quiet, and the silence & space between the two characters is thick with unspoken sentimentality. Right before he gets in the car, Hae Sung brings up in-yun one more time. I don't have the exact quote, and while I love this movie deeply I'm not sure I have the emotional constitution to watch it again any time soon. But Hae Sung says that some day the life that he and Nora are living right now will also be a past life. Their souls will move on and become something new. He wonders if, in their next lives, they might be something different to each other. And then he leaves.

It is heartbreaking in a way, but I choose to find hope in that. The things we want are not always meant to be ours. But in a next life, if you believe in something like that, there exists infinite opportunity. Just because things are one way now, does not mean that they will always be. Whether that means later on in this life, or in whatever comes next. What we can do is nurture what we do have, what is in front of us, and what is real in this moment. Despairing about what was or what could have been only serves to hurt us. It's easier said than done, and I certainly have a lot of work to do to put that into practice in my own life.

I love the idea of in-yun. I have thought about it every day since I saw this film. It helps me remember that there is a point and a purpose to everything that happens in our lives. We come into contact with the people in our lives for a purpose. Between me and the patients I work with through my occupation, there is in-yun. The person you brush up against in the crowd at a show; in-yun. The three people I called on the phone in tears after I saw this movie, there is in-yun there for sure.

In-yun helps me feel connected. It makes me feel less alone. It gives me a lot of hope. If you think it might enrich your journey, I hope you carry the idea with you, too.