Nora and Hae Sung, two childhood friends, are reunited in New York for one fateful week as they confront notions of destiny, love, and the choices that make a life.
I wonder what the effect would be on the film if the (almost) fourth-wall-breaking game of "who are they" we hear at the beginning of the film was moved to near the end. It would, at the very least, ask the audience to re-evaluate their quasi-voyeurism and their desire for these characters to get together… Ultimately, I don't go as far as Alison Willmore (see below) in her critique, but I do agree with her general thesis that Past Lives feels a little too calculating. In contrast, I disagree with most reviewers who read Nora's husband as being "enlightened" — rather, I think he's actually scanning as excessively needy with his second-order "I'm above it all" game of narrative self-analysis. Perhaps too conveniently needy, in fact.
In bundling the issues of identity, cultural ties, and rootlessness to love interests, the film shrinks them down into something that feels negligible, and then tries to give itself added heft with the idea of inyun — the connection between people built up over all their past lives. […] When Nora first explains inyun to Arthur under those warm lights at night at the retreat, she jokes that the spiritual concept is “just something Koreans say to seduce someone.” By the time the idea of inyun comes back up in earnest, it feels like it’s actually the audience that’s being had.
— Alison Willmore (Vulture)