Past Lives: In-Yeon Meaning, Explained

A24’s ‘Past Lives’ is a romance drama that follows the story of Nora and Hae Sung, who reconnect twelve years after saying goodbye to each other. Their story takes many ups and downs as they reflect on the importance of their presence in one another’s lives and what their crossing of paths after more than a decade might mean. While it begins as a story about two childhood sweethearts who are separated and brought back together, it grows out of that idea and touches upon something much bigger than the idea of a simple love story. The word “in-yeon” (also spelled “in yun”) is used to describe the core of the film. What does it mean, and how does it play into the story? Let’s find out. SPOILERS AHEAD

What Does In-Yeon Mean in Past Lives?

In the simplest terms, in-yeon refers to the connection between two people. It sees the interactions between people, even if it is as simple as someone brushing past you on the street, as the result of a connection they had in their past lives. In the movie, Nora explains it to Arthur, saying that if two people get married, they must have a history of 8000 in-yun between them. This means that they have crossed each other’s paths in their previous lives 8000 times.

For writer-director Celine Song, in-yeon is about how we cannot control who walks into our lives, who we become friends with, or fall in love with, or even who doesn’t stay in our lives. “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,” she said. Elaborating upon the idea, she emphasized how in-yeon is more than just about romantic fate or destiny. “I think it’s easy to think about In-Yun as something you can only have in a special destiny with somebody else. That, to me, is a very Western way of thinking. In the Eastern way of thinking, so much about In-Yun is something that comes to you. Destiny is something that comes to you, and you can’t really stop it. It is something that you have to learn to accept,” she added.

This explanation of in-yeon is touched upon in the film, especially in the scene where Hae Sung tells Arthur that they, too, are in-yeon. It isn’t just about Arthur and Nora or Nora and Hae Sung. It is about the connection we have with the people we cross paths with, most of whom will remain strangers to us or become strangers after we lose touch with them. In that sense, it is simply about things being a certain way because that’s how they are supposed to be.

In one scene, Hae Sung says that for him, Nora is someone who always leaves. But for Arthur, she is the one who stays. In another scene, Arthur contemplates whether he was just a random person Nora ended up with. Their story was nowhere near as grand and romantic as Nora and Hae Sung’s. What if there had been some other guy at the residency where Arthur and Nora met? What if that man, too, had a lot of things in common with Nora? How would her ending up with that person could have been different from her ending up with Arthur?

While he looks for a greater meaning in their relationship, a more romantic idea about them ending up together, Nora refers to in-yeon. It doesn’t matter how things happened and if they would have happened the same way with someone else. It doesn’t matter what that other life would have looked like for Nora because the fact remains: she met Arthur, she fell in love with him, and she chose to marry him. That’s in-yeon. They must have 8,000 layers of in-yeon in their past lives because, in this life, they ended up marrying each other.

By bringing this idea into the movie, Song wanted people to think about in-yeon and our connection with each other in a deeper sense. She explained: “It is something that I think can be a part of everybody’s life and the way we think about everyone. I think part of that is that it makes every relationship we have, or even every encounter we have, have weight, meaning, and depth. Because if you can think of the person who gave you a cup of water as a person that you have In-Yun with, yeah, then I think that the way you think about that person, the way you treat that person, and the way you care for that person changes. I think In-Yun can be a pretty amazing thing that one can have.”

Read More: Is Past Lives Based on Celine Song’s Life? Are Nora and Hae Song Based on Real People?