2013/11/15 | 691 views | | Permalink
It's rare to see many films about rustic country life in South Korea mainly because, by design, nothing really happens there. Men and women old enough to be in a nursing home just continue doing the same back-breaking farm labor day after day without really questioning it because, well, that's what they've always done. What else would they do? It's just an old man, his wife, their ox and their dog, going about the daily grind.
In "Old Partner" the ox is nearing the end of its days. Several decades old, it becomes clear that the animal doesn't have much more time to live. But still, the old man continues to ride in the ox-cart to the field every day to complete the necessary farm work, and then they head back on the same trip home. It's not an especially exciting trip, but to these country folk a simple existence where they can work, and rest, and get ready to work again is good enough. The ox isn't a terribly expressive creature, but looking at the animal inspires that same sense of, not exactly contentment, but acceptance with the greater nature of the universe.
The entire way of life this film puts on display is fundamentally different than that any reader of this review can likely appreciate, mostly because you had to use some sort of Internet-enabled device just to get here. "Old Partner" is about the satisfaction in simple living, and the emotional attachments we form to living creatures just because they're always reliable, always there for us, and there's a certain intimacy involved with just being that in tune with the routine of daily life.
This is well-demonstrated in the running storyline about the ox that will one day replace the weary old animal who this film showcases. This new animal isn't polite and doesn't know the routine. The old man who owns her understand that, while the new animal might be young, he most certainly is not. The old man will likely not live along enough to form that same level of emotional bond with a new animal- that's how preferable the old routine is, even as the old ox gets slower and weaker, yet never resists the effort of doing its daily work.
The documentary's approach is extremely subtle- sometimes it can come off as a bit boring, but the extent of the emotional heart involved is unmistakable. When the time inevitably comes when the old ox is no longer able to even stand up, there's a sadness in this moment, this sheer inevitability, that can't be broached by anything. On the face of it, the film's final scene is an absurd one- but watching it in that moment, in that context, all I could feel was tremendous sadness realizing that this one small part of the world was now gone- the ox was always a functional beast of burden, yet it too had its place.
In some ways I envy that old ox for being able to find its simple place in the world, however separate it may be from my understanding of it. Call that corny if you like- but if that's the goal "Old Partner" has with respect to its audience, it definitely succeeded. Director Lee Chung-ryoul has crafted a remarkable film about the simple realities of rural life with insights absolutely worth ingesting.
Review by William Schwartz
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from YESAIA
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Old Partner""
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