“Past Lives” opens with three people at a New York City restaurant being observed from afar. In voice-over, we hear two people speculating about who the trio might be, and what their situation is. Are the Korean man and woman together, one person asks, or are they related? And how does the lone white guy fit into this group?
As the discussion continues, writer-director Celine Song focuses her camera on the woman, Nora (Greta Lee), whose gaze appears to break the fourth wall. It’s as if she’s daring us to guess what she’s thinking.
Suddenly, the film jumps back 24 years in time, and we are in South Korea. We meet the 12-year old version of Nora, who goes by her given first name, Na Young (Moon Seung Ah). She is best friends with Hae Sung (Leem Seung Min), whom she says she will marry because he is manly. Hae Sung is clearly sweet on her, playfully mocking every time she cries, which is often.
Unfortunately, Na Young is immigrating to Canada with her parents at the end of the school year, so her matrimonial plans are moot.
However, the parents of the two set up a “date” for them beforehand, a kind of goodbye present that ends when they separate. Song frames their last moment as if they were taking separate paths at a fork in the path — one goes up a long set of stairs as the other diverges left on a road. Before “Past Lives” ends, your brain will conjure up this image, proving how well the director implants it in your mind.
When asked by a neighbor why she’s leaving, and whether she will regret it, Na Young’s mother (Ji Hye Yoon) replies, “If you leave something behind, you gain something, too.” A thread of philosophical musing runs beneath “Past Lives,” one of the year’s best films. Song has created a poignant meditation on love, fate, and the unanswerable question of what could have been.
The film introduces the concept of in-yun, which can be interpreted as providence or fate. It’s a belief that the smallest interaction between two people is meant to be because they were together in a past life. They do not have to be humans in that life. Their current meeting could be something as minor as bumping into someone on the street, or as complex as the interactions between Nora and the adult Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), whom she will encounter twice more over the next 24 years.
In their second interaction, occurring 12 years after their first date, the two develop their long-distance friendship over Skype. Nora is now a playwright workshopping her plays in America. Hae Sung has broken up with a girlfriend back home and subtly seeks the possibility of a long-term relationship. Without much explanation, Nora abruptly ends these chats.
“Past Lives” then jumps 12 years ahead into the timeframe of its opening. We’re introduced to Arthur (John Magaro), the white guy in that first scene. It also reveals that Hae Sung and Nora have been reunited in person.
It’s implied that most Koreans know about in-yun; at one point, Hae Sung and Nora contemplate what they were to one another in their past lives since they are so connected in the present one. But we first hear about in-yun from Nora at a writer’s retreat, where she explains it to Arthur, then adds, “It’s just something Koreans say when they want to seduce someone.”
She and Arthur become lovers, then a married couple, throwing a wrench into our expectations. Shouldn’t this movie be leading toward the reconciliation between two people who were so obviously meant to be together that their paths continued to cross after two long absences? Even Arthur considers this possibility, framing himself as the villain “if this were a movie.”
“Past Lives” goads us into liking Arthur and even feeling his insecurities when Hae Sung pays a visit. Trusting Nora completely, he allows the two to explore New York alone. But he mentions to his wife that she talks in Korean in her sleep; he sees it as a piece of her life he will never have access to — but that Hae Sung would’ve been able to translate easily if he had been her chosen mate.
Magaro stands out as the comic relief, and also because he has the most difficult character to play. In one plausible interpretation, he’s the American third wheel who quite literally stands in the way of what fate had in store for Nora and Hae Sung. Lee and Yoo play the connection between their characters with a quiet stoicism — they’re both fantastic.
Watching Arthur and Hae Sung navigate the language barrier and their own awkwardness in the situation is one of the many joys this film offers — the fact that they’re both nice guys muddies the waters of our loyalties. Song’s intention isn’t to force us to take a side. Instead, she wants us to consider numerous possibilities and outcomes.
That’s why “Past Lives” earns the tears that it does. I hesitate to describe it as a love story between Hae Sung and Nora that has gone awry, because it raises the question of whether their actual love story occurred in the past, or whether it’s being set up for the next life by the circumstances of their present.
Song masterfully simplifies things on an emotional level, allowing us to switch back and forth between feelings or simply to meditate on the outcome we wish for, and to understand why it’s OK if we don’t get it. If your eyes haven’t moistened by then, the last three words Hae Sung says in this achingly beautiful film will guarantee a few tears no matter who you’re rooting for; you’ll cry, but not because you’re sad.
Written and directed by Celine Song. Starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Ji Hye Yoon, Moon Seung Ah, Leem Seung Min. 106 minutes. In Korean and English. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square. PG-13 (bilingual bad words)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.