“Past Lives” opens almost voyeuristically, as two unseen onlookers gawk at an irresistibly odd scene unfolding in front of them in a New York City bar at four in the morning. Three individuals, a Korean man and woman in deep conversation while a white man sits awkwardly off to the side, clearly arrived together … but their collective body language makes these eavesdroppers speculate about the exact nature of their relationships to one another. As luck (or fate?) would have it, that’s exactly what these characters are attempting to figure out for themselves, too.
Writer/director Celine Song’s feature film debut whisks us beyond this fascinating cold open and travels back a few decades to show us the very beginnings of Na Young and Hae Sung’s story as childhood sweethearts in South Korea. Thanks to the script’s bold structure, the two would-be lovers only seem to cross one another’s orbits every 12 years, as chance allows — once as capricious 20-somethings still on opposite ends of the world, rekindling their flirtation entirely through Zoom, and again as adults who must now reckon with the paths they took and the choices they’ve made.
All throughout, the concept of “In-Yun” comes up again and again, which loosely translates to fate or destiny and suggests that two people coming together for even the briefest of moments is evidence of a connection shared countless times before in their past lives. As the arrival of Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) in New York upends the life built by Na Young (now going by the Americanized name Nora and played by a brilliant Greta Lee) with her husband Arthur (John Magaro), all three steadily discover that life isn’t quite so black-and-white.
“Past Lives” is currently playing in theaters.