The art of the movie review is in giving just enough away. It is easy to give away too little, and even easier to give away too much. No such worries, however, apply to Old Partner. This is a documentary impossible to spoil. I could describe each frame in extravagant detail, copy down every word of the dialogue (sparse as it is)—or, conversely, I could say only that this is a quiet documentation of a year in the life of an old couple and their ox, and leave it at that. There are no plot turns or startling revelations. The whole of the simple story is told via flashback, so it is a chronicle foretold.
I can’t spoil the movie, but I can’t do it justice, either.
When I saw Old Partner, the audience was notable not so much for its volume—the theater was comfortably full, but no more—but for its range. It’s a shame that the term “family film” has become so inextricably associated with mindless comedies, because in the strictest sense, it would apply to Old Partner. Children, teenagers, parents, grandparents, were all present, and for that hour, at least, the generation gaps didn’t matter.
For most purposes, you can say this movie has three characters—an old man who seems heartbreakingly frail to be farming by hand, his wife (who steals the show), and the faithful ox that has served the family for forty years.A program director at Sundance prefaced the film with the comment, “I don’t know which of the three I love most.”
The ox is older than most of their nine children, and her hard work sent them to school and to modern adult lives far away from this lush, almost forgotten Korean countryside. The parallels are almost too obvious.
Every morning, the old man wakes before dawn to prepare a gourmet vegetable meal for his ox. Together, they go painfully, haltingly up a hill to the fields, which the farmer weeds on his hands and knees, occasionally taking a break to feed his ox handfuls of dandelions. His wife accompanies him, grumbling because he refuses to ease their labor by spraying the fields with pesticides, which he says will poison the wholesome greens he feeds his partner.
You might almost forget that this is the year 2009, if it weren’t for his neighbors, who roar around the fields in tractors (they chew up the greenery and make it worthless as cattle feed), and keep insects at bay with pesticides. It isn’t just the equipment. The old man walks with a painful limp, as one of his legs is withered into uselessness (his wife blames bad acupuncture). He is close to deaf, unless it is his ox calling. The doctor who treats him for bad headaches and high blood pressure orders him to slow down, but work is his life. Post-documentary, this couple’s offspring have been systematically harassed for “allowing” their parents to work so hard at their age, but one gets the feeling that work is what keeps him alive.
Much of the documentary is a tribute to a way of living that is not reduced by its simplicity and closeness to nature, but elevated. The only real needs are sustenance, companionship, and a sense of being useful. At first it seems cruel to watch the couple driving the halting old ox up the hill every morning, especially when they have a younger ox in the barnyard, ready to be trained. And yet that old ox is to live double the normal lifespan. Retirement would not have been a kindness for her any more than for the farmer. The director, Lee Chung-ryul, saw between them a pact of service.
There are moments of humor as well as sadness. The sight of the faithful ox and her cart, “parked” patiently in a lot, surrounded by more modern vehicles. The old woman and her much-needed comic relief, notably when she sighs theatrically that she should marry a “lusty young man” like their neighbor. “We both met the wrong man,” the old woman says ruefully to the ox. “That’s why we both have to work so hard.”
And there are the moments of beauty. The camera follows the turtles and frogs and other animals that teem in the farmer’s organic fields, as well as the faithful, rhythmic routines of his traditional farming. Some scenes are so touching that they almost seem scripted. The old woman singing a song about lost youth, as she does her chores. The look in the old man’s eyes when his children say the ox should be sold so that he and his wife can retire. The ox, who deserves anthropomorphizing if any animal ever did, refusing to die until enough firewood was hauled to see the couple through the winter. Tears in her eyes—yes, real tears. The farmer finally removing the dying ox’s halter and telling her to go to heaven. The couple sitting quietly by the ox’s grave.
The documentary has its flaws, though they detract very little. The usage of music seems at times clumsy and intrusive. And the documentary had some unfortunate consequences in the loss of the old couple’s privacy. The intrusion of tourists into their lives is deplorable and almost makes the success of the documentary regrettable.
But a lack of success would have been unforgivable. Tenderly shot, beautifully elegiac, Old Partner is a celebration of a forgotten part of Korea, a disappearing way of life, and the unsung sacrifices of so many parents and grandparents.