Films at the Fox: Past Lives delivers as one of the very best movies of the year

Past Lives is one of the very best movies of the year, writes reviewer Brady Burkett.

Local student Brady Burkett shares his reviews of movies that have recently been shown, or will be shown, at the Fox Theatre on Queen Street East in the Beach.


I walked into Celine Song’s directorial debut Past Lives with, if not exactly skepticism, a certain amount of caution. This may seem odd; the film is awash with near-universal praise and adoration, with critics heaping perfect scores upon it from every which way.

I certainly did not expect it to be bad, but almost everything surrounding it made it look like it was going to be, for me, another Tàr or Raging Bull; a movie where I can watch it and acknowledge its excellence, but simultaneously acknowledge that it simply was not for me and that I was kind of bored for a large amount of the running time.

I love big, bombastic movies. That’s one of the reasons why Everything Everywhere All at Once was my favourite movie of last year; because on top of its tight story, balance of hilarious absurd comedy and profound emotion, and excellent direction, it was also big in every sense of the word aside from budget. It grappled with big ideas, big emotions, a big scale. Maximalism seeped from its every pore and “too much” was not a word in anyone’s vocabulary during the filmmaking process. Stanley Kubrick once said that in filmmaking, it is necessary to “photograph the photograph”, that emotions and actions must be exaggerated in order to feel real.

This is why I walked into Past Lives with such reservation, because it looked to be, by all accounts, a small, quiet, and deeply subdued film. In other words, not really to my taste at all, more or less. I admittedly went in more out of obligation to try and see any movie this year that receives a good amount of praise than I did out of a legitimate want to actually watch the movie. I sat down in my seat, ready to spend the next 106 minutes with it if only for the sake of checking it off of a list.

All of this to say: Past Lives is one of the very best movies of the year.

It had me utterly enthralled for every second of its shockingly breezy runtime and I’m struggling to think of any problems I have with it. It’s not “big” in any way, shape, or form. There are no massive emotional moments or set pieces, and yet it keeps you completely invested throughout and leaves you with almost a dull melancholy ache in your chest once the credits roll. It’s an absolute masterpiece.

Past Lives tells the story of two children, a boy and a girl, living in Korea, who are separated when the girl’s family immigrates to North America. Years later, once the two have become adults and are now living their own lives separate from one another, they reconnect and begin asking questions about whether they still have feelings for each other, whether they’ve missed their chance to be together, and what could have been if their lives had gone differently.

This is not a particularly unique setup for a story; if this were a traditional Hollywood screenplay or Hallmark movie, you could probably come up with the direction that it was going to go in within two minutes of hearing that synopsis.

Fortunately, Past Lives opts for a much more interesting and subversive approach to this concept. Without spoiling anything, the usual direction that this sort of film would go in is actively lampshaded and commented on, then pointedly dismissed.

As said before, this is a very quiet and subdued film, completely lacking in the usual big blowouts or (ugh) misunderstandings that usually plague this type of story setup. Instead, it simply focuses on two people, their shared experiences, and the extremely simple and small events of their lives. Most of the depth exists entirely subtextually; buried deep underneath seemingly inconsequential dialogue.

The direction is similar in its subtle excellence. It often dips into the background and allows the performances to take centre stage, but never remains lazily stagnant. It’s always pulling off an impressive oner, or drawing attention to the character’s feelings through symbolism.

One of my personal favourites is a shot of the two leads on a subway, holding onto either side of a pole for steadiness. It’s shot from the window of another car, representing the distance between them, and the pole cuts the screen in half with the man and woman on either side, representing the emotional barrier separating them. Things like that are littered all over the movie.

The performances are excellent across the board, with Greta Lee as the female lead being the standout. The two main characters have fantastic chemistry, lending a depth under the surface to even the most simple of conversations and interactions. That’s the best way to sum up the entire movie, really; it buries a chasm of emotion underneath the seemingly banal.

The ending rips you to a million pieces not really because of anything that’s happening on screen; if you showed it to someone who hadn’t seen the rest of the movie they’d have no idea why it was so supposedly emotional. It destroys you not by skewering you with a flashy sword but by stabbing you a thousand times with a dull butter knife.

Past Lives is a deeply melancholy and bittersweet experience, one where not very much actually happens on a surface level. In theory, that should be absolutely boring, and it very well could be for a large population of people. I will say this of it though: I expected to be part of that population, and yet ended up utterly floored by the film. It brings to mind Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday in the simultaneous beauty and pain it finds in the everydayness of life. I cannot recommend it enough.

I give it a rating of 10 out of 10.

The Fox Theatre is located at 2236 Queen St. E. Past Lives is scheduled to be screened on July 18 and July 20 at the Fox. For more information on upcoming films playing at the Fox, please visit

EDITOR’S NOTE: Brady Burkett is a local resident and high school student. The opinions in the reviews are his, and the reviews are not sponsored or vetted by the Fox Theatre.

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