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.