In-Yun — What if we’re in a past life?

Catrina Prager
5 min readSep 21, 2023

Warning: This contains spoilers for the movie Past Lives. If you’re planning on watching, and would like a “fresh” experience, I suggest you click off, and come back. Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.

Photo: IMDB

From times out of mind, our society has been fascinated by the concept of reincarnation. Down the years, we’ve resorted to art, literature, and meditation to explore this beguiling concept. Indeed, for some, it lies at the very epicentre of their religious life.

It’s this possibility of multiple existences that has sparked another, equally compelling motif — that of soul mates.

As a self-confessed romantic, it’s a topic of never-ending fascination. Yet, the artist in me can’t help thinking it’s overdone. Finding each other in one life after another is a sweet thought, for some even, a raison d’etre, yet how many times can you see the “we knew each other in a past life” trope before it starts to sting?

Apparently, there’s room for one more.

Past Lives — a tender look at our distanced world.

When I saw Past Lives advertised as ‘the movie of the year’, I figured it was nothing more than catchy marketing. Now, I’m not so sure.

Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, are wrested apart after Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. Twenty years later, they are reunited for one fateful week as they confront notions of love and destiny.

Reviewing it for The Guardian, film critic Peter Bradshaw reductively described Past Lives as an excellent “date movie”, though I’d argue it most definitely is not. Rather than fall down the same (tired) plot of two soulmates who meet in a new life, Past Lives tells us about two soul mates who lose one another, and it’s crushing.

Even as you root for the two main characters to find each other again, and live out the rest of their (obviously) pre-destined lives together, Celine Song’s masterful directorial debut refuses to play to its audience’s desires.

Taking its cue from the Korean concept of in-yun, the movie shows us that, while there might be lives in which Nora (Na) Young and Hae Sung end up together, this isn’t one of them.

In-yun is the belief that the interactions between two people in this life are owed to interactions (or near-interactions) in their past lives. The concept suggests that some encounters are not, as we might at first assume, accidental, but rather a cosmic tug on our sleeve. The Universe saying here, this human’s important in your journey.

(as I understand it, at least — if anyone reading this can further clarify this fascinating concept, please do!)

Photo: IMDB

Through this concept, the movie translates traditional soulmates into something more fluid, not bound by mere romantic or sexual interest. From a time before time, it seems, Na Young and Hae Sung have been part of one another’s story, just like Na Young and Arthur Zaturansky, her American husband, have been part of each other’s story. Indeed, as Hae Sung confides in Arthur during a singular, drunken night, even these two men may be caught in an in-yun cycle of their own — finding each other, life after life, in different circumstances…

…and with different outcomes.

It’s a point of unspeakable artistic satisfaction to me when a movie or a book does the less obvious thing. When the hero doesn’t save the world. When the obvious romantic interests don’t end up together. Because isn’t that more true to life than any fairytale ending could be?

The grief of losing a soulmate

You make my world so much bigger and I’m wondering if I do the same for you? (Arthur)

While the entire film felt like a warm blanket wrapped around my September-chilly-shoulders, the final scene was, hands down, my favorite. Having walked Hae Sung to his cab, Nora walks back to find Arthur waiting for her. And, despite Arthur’s earlier jealous outburst, the tenderness with which he wraps his arms around his sobbing wife is heartbreaking.

The understanding and shared grief in that one scene beautifully captures the grief of seeing a soul mate — a person destined for your knowledge and companionship — walk out of your present existence. The scene is wordless, since none are necessary.

Photo: IMDB

What could be said? Even the promise of finding each other in the next life is not enough to assuage the sorrow of knowing your interactions for this present life, with this special person, are over.

What if this is a past life as well, and we are already something else to each other in our next life? Who do you think we are then? (Hae Sung)

The line comes at an earlier moment of particular tension between the two protagonists, to which Nora placatingly replies that she doesn’t know. Later, lying in bed with her (jealous) husband, she firmly tells him

This is my life, and I’m living it with you. This is where I ended up. It’s where I’m supposed to be.

In these two scenes, you’ve got the powerful contrast between two possible worlds — what the Universe meant for you, and what you got. Fate, and fortune. What you could’ve had, and what you do have.

In not pairing up the protagonists, Celine Song cements her debut (!) as this endless, timeless love story, with the potential of taking on a life of its own because of the tenderness, and the boundless hope it gives rise to.

When they briefly reconnect as 20-something-year-olds, Nora tells Hae Sung about The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I’d argue Past Lives has just the right measure of heart, humanity, and poetry to follow in that eternal classic’s footsteps.

It leaves one wondering about the endless stream of possible lives out there, waiting for us (to live or equally, to remember them). And on a more hopeful note, it left me vastly more optimistic about the future of cinema.

Thank you for reading! I’m fairly scatterbrained, and this was one of the many random subjects that pique my interest.

I recently put out my first book (the first in a fantasy trilogy), and am working on the next two. So there’s a chance I’ll be talking about that, sometimes.

So if you’re someone who enjoys that kinda writing, well, why not subscribe? It’s free. And I’m desperate. So there, honesty.



Catrina Prager

Author of 'Hearthender'. Freelancer of the Internet. Traveler of the World. I ramble.