By Aaron Hillis
By Casey Burchby
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Calum Marsh
By Kera Bolonik
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Ernest Hardy
By Eric Hynes
The key image in Old Partner is that of farmer Choi Won-kyun, 79, slumped in his jerry-rigged cart, being pulled down the rural South Korean roads between his tumbledown home and rice paddy, by his 40-year-old ox. It's a Methuselan age for a work animal. The thing seems ready to collapse with every trudging step. Won-kyun makes the trip several times daily.
Old Partner is, likewise, a repetitive, lumbering journey toward an inevitable destination. This isn't an insult—the subject determines the style. Director Lee Chung-ryoul, who dedicates his documentary film to a passing generation of rural grandparents, devotes close-up attention to the wear-and-tear of a lifetime of labor on beast and man. We scrutinize the ox's rheumy eyes, festering patches, jutting hips, and flanks scaled with mud (or worse). Won-kyun and his wife, Sam-soon, are near bent in half; because of a shriveled ankle, he works the fields on all fours.
A favorite topic is the order in which the three will die. At most, Sam-soon will complain, complain against the dying of the light. Big-jawed, with a disapproving, single-toothed mouth, she does most of the talking, bemoaning Won-kyun's addiction to work, his outmoded farming techniques, and the hassle created by upkeeping that near-infirm ox. Perhaps she's emboldened by the presence of the camera crew—or, frighteningly, maybe this is what they've been doing for six decades. (Won-kyun's defense is retreating into a silent huddle. "Trees shake when the wind blows, that old man won't utter a sound," his wife says.) She refers much to a Korean phrase translated as "Woe is me!", and complains that she met a bad man who gives her no rest—Sam-soon empathizes with the old ox in this regard.
Compared to, say, Raymond Depardon's rural ethnographies, Old Partner is crude in its soundtrack-manipulated narrative and sentimental outbursts, awkward in an otherwise hard film. But one does leave with a rarely vivid sense of the grind of time, in work and marriage.
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