Menu Close
Nora smiles at Hae-Sung.

Past Lives: inyeon is a Korean philosophy of how relationships form over many lifetimes

“There is a word in Korean – inyeon. It means providence or fate. But it’s specifically about relationships between people.” So writer Nora Lee tells her American lover when they meet on an artists’ retreat in director Celine Song’s new film, Past Lives.

The film tells the story of two lives unfolding in parallel, converging only briefly in moments of inyeon. One life is Nora’s time as a child in Korea with her cheot-sarang (first love), and the other is her life in New York when her first love comes to visit her 24 years later, after she has married and settled down with an American husband.

Past Lives explores inyeon through the relationship between Nora (or Na-Young as she was known in Korea) and Hae-Sung, her childhood friend and crush.

Like so many stories about relationships told over an extended time, Past Lives uncovers the twists and turns, the “what ifs” and the manifold choices that lead to two people wondering whether they were meant to be together. Nora’s introduction of the concept of inyeon to the story gives the characters space to explore possibilities of coming together not just in this life, but in lives before and after the present one.

Inyeon’ and ‘jeong’

While you still come across inyeon in conversation occasionally, it’s not a concept you see referenced a lot in popular culture. Apart from cropping up in a number of hit ballads in the pop charts of the 1980s and 1990s, inyeon has its origins in a time when traditional religious beliefs were a more common feature of everyday Korean social life.

Inyeon tends to be referenced in Korea less often than jeong – the idea of “we-ism” or “oneness” that comes from people sharing one “heart-mind”. Visitors to Korea will often encounter jeong as an explanation for unsolicited acts of kindness that act like an “invisible hug”. Jeong is a seat given up on a bus, an extra side dish at no charge, a lost wallet handed in to the police.

Nora offers a clue as to why inyeon perhaps isn’t as well known as jeong outside Korea. In her explanation to her husband, Arthur, she says: “That’s just something Koreans say to seduce someone”, suggesting inyeon arises more often in situations of intimacy than casual transactions.

Yet inyeon has deeper roots than Nora’s dismissive comment suggests. Both jeong and inyeon describe aspects of “we” as a relational tie, where inyeon is a cause and jeong is an outcome.

8000 layers of inyeon

In Korean Buddhism, in () refers to “direct cause” and yeon (緣) to “indirect cause”, or the conditions that make an outcome possible. Together, in and yeon provide an explanation as to why certain beings meet in certain places and times.

Read more: Past Lives: a luxurious and lingering portrayal of lost love and identity in the Korean diaspora

Not far removed from karma (업), inyeon can be used to explain how relationships form or are given from heaven. The same yeon (緣) from inyeon is found in the Korean saying, cheon-saeng-yeon-bun, or “a match made in heaven”. Inyeon is not unique to Korea, a Chinese proverb claims that if destined, people will meet even if they are thousands of miles apart.

Hae-Sung, Nora and her husband Arthur sat at a bar
Nora’s emigration to Canada and New York create new spaces for inyeon. Jon Pack

By way of explanation, Nora says:

It’s an inyeon if two strangers even walk past each other in the street and their clothes accidentally brush, because it means there must have been something between them in their past lives. If two people get married, they say it’s because there have been 8,000 layers of inyeon over 8,000 lifetimes.

Inyeon has its opposite, too. agyeon, or “ill-fated relationship” attributes bad encounters in past lives as a cause of antagonistic relationships in the present.

However, Past Lives complicates the potential of inyeon by adding multiple geographic and cultural dimensions. Nora’s immigrant experience overturns the idea that two people might be destined to be together in any place or culture.

Removed from Korea aged 12, Nora grows up and becomes Canadian and then American, and so doors open to new encounters and new spaces for inyeon to do its work with new people. Nora’s husband, Arthur, expresses his gratitude for this outcome, saying: “You make my world bigger, and I hope I do yours”.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 183,700 academics and researchers from 4,959 institutions.

Register now