Past Lives and Other Reincarnation Stories

Cover-image-for-the-DVD-Past Lives

This post is a shameless excuse to tell you about an excellent movie by the name of Past Lives. I was lucky enough to see it at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre in September, and it was the perfect venue. That being said, the TIFF theatre is pretty much the perfect venue for anything. It’s a gorgeous, glamourous, multi-story affair that screens untold cinematic gems. The biggest difference between a theatre like the TIFF and your neighbourhood cinema is that the movies shown are curated by experts in the field. It’s not just the latest films to hit the big screen after distributors secure the rights to show them. The selection process is based on the quality and individual merits of every work. Equivalent to an art gallery or a museum, but in movie theatre format. If you’ve never been and you live in the GTA, you must rectify this immediately. If you’re under 25 and you haven’t been, you really need to rectify that because you can often get tickets for free. And so I went one Friday in September, making the long voyage on the subway downtown, because I was successfully targeted by Instagram’s algorithm and a well-made ad.

It did not disappoint. It’s a lengthy, meditative, tranquil time that, nevertheless, would not suit every personality type. If you’re not the type of person that can sit still for hours at a time and passively experience something, this is not the film for you. However, if you can get yourself in a mindful place (keeping in mind that the relentless pursuit of productivity is a losing cause), you may relish the opportunity to take a few deep breaths and settle in for a while.

The story follows Nora and Hae Sung, beginning with their childhood friendship. A transition point comes when Nora moves from Korea to the United States (by way of Canada). Their paths move in separate directions for a while, but the connection between them is never lessened or forgotten. As the years go on, and they become adults, they find each other online — as the internet has enabled us to do. The capacity for something like Facebook to reconnect friends on different sides of the planet is given an almost magical quality here. The rest of the film is devoted to their efforts to grapple with the strength of their connection, given the realities of both their lives. When we see friends we made when we very young, how does that inform our other relationships? And how do we reconcile everything that person meant to us as a child once our lives have changed in monumental ways?

There is a subliminal sensation of autobiography to the story that turns out to be true. The director Celine Song moved to the Markham area from Seoul when she was 12 and ended up at Columbia in New York. Even the opening scene is based in reality.

I had an emotional reaction to the ending. I wonder how many others have had similar reactions. The person I saw it with was not emotional at all, but a lot of critics have picked up on the emotions at the story’s core. I think it’s one of those litmus test movies. If you’re a person who cries watching films, you might find yourself with a box of tissues on your lap. The pathos creeps up on you. Just as we start to understand everything at stake, it’s over.

The title comes from a Korean concept mentioned in the film called in-yun. It’s the idea that anyone who means something to you in your life, even someone you have the briefest of interactions with in the street, or in a restaurant, is someone you knew in a past life. The idea of reincarnation is a fascinating one and one that’s been used in several other books and films. While you wait for Past Lives to arrive in our collection, check out some of these other reincarnation stories.

Cloud Atlas


You may have heard of this simultaneously reviled and revered film. It’s based on the book by David Mitchell. You may even have seen a clip of Tom Hanks in a post-apocalyptic future speaking a fictional language that’s not always entirely legible. The reactions to this film are the definition of polarized. I find that fascinating because I very much enjoyed Cloud Atlas. Like Roger Ebert, I found myself wanting to watch it again after it had ended. I never did watch it again after seeing it in theatres in 2012. I’m going to change that soon. I’ve mentioned Roger Ebert on this blog previously and for good reason. He has inspired me as a writer in more ways than one. Evidently, he has inspired my colleagues as well. His belief that movies can encourage empathy in their audiences deeply resonates with me. It’s also always comforting to see his reviews match how I feel about a film. Cloud Atlas was no different. One thing that does surprise me about his review is that he didn’t seem to pick up on the idea that the filmmakers created a kind of visual allegory or extended metaphor for reincarnation. Each actor plays several characters from different time periods and parts of the world to suggest that they are reincarnations of the same soul, born again in a different body and different worldly circumstances. It seems to have been a common occurrence for audiences to wonder how the characters and narratives the movie flits between are connected. ‘What do these people have in common?’ This is beside the point, really. I have never read the book, but I would like to tackle that project at some point in time.

Defending Your Life


There are parallels between this classic film — written, directed, and starred in by Albert Brooks — and the next item on this list, The Good Place. In this film from 1991, Brooks plays an advertising executive who dies very young and arrives in Judgment City to stand trial. The trial will determine whether he should move on to the next level of existence. If the judges find that he has not passed the test of sorts, he will be reincarnated back on Earth for another chance at life. Albert Brooks is an iconic comedian and actor — not to mention Meryl Streep is his co-star — so I’m personally putting this one on hold.

The Good Place


I imagine creator Michael Schur (of The Office and Parks and Recreation fame) must have been inspired by Brooks’ film when he came up with The Good Place. This is one of my favourite shows. I just re-watched almost all of the episodes. All but one. The finale, which I’m in the habit of doing. A sense of finality is not always a pleasant feeling when it comes to the shows I love. I like to imagine that the characters go on living their lives long after we are finished being their audience. Some series finales allow viewers that luxury of denial. Others not so much. I won’t spoil anything here, but The Good Place is one of those wonderful shows that makes you feel like the characters are your friends.

Eleanor, Chidi, Tahani, and Jason (or Jianyu if you haven’t gotten to that part yet) have all passed away at a young age. In the first episode, they all reach The Good Place, or the afterlife reserved for those who have been the most moral and good in their time on Earth. Eleanor quickly begins to doubt this, however, enlisting Chidi to help her figure out why she ended up there when she was very much a “medium” person. The twists and turns that follow remind me even more of the plot of Defending Your Life, and reincarnation definitely plays a role. Check it out if you haven’t seen it yet, and give it a few episodes. The performances are excellent and the philosophical questions it raises may not be new or original, but they are important.

Have you seen or read any other reincarnation stories that you enjoyed? Let me know in the comments, and if you give any of these recommendations a try, do share your thoughts below!

About Claire

Claire is an Information Assistant at Vaughan Public Libraries. Avid cooker, concertgoer, coffee drinker, TV and movie watcher, washi tape enthusiast, and unabashed fan of romance in all its varieties (even Hallmark movies).  |  Meet the team