The independent Korean documentary “Old Partner” has been something of a phenomenon, pulling in a mightily impressive three million tickets at the domestic box office, as well as winning Best Documentary at the Pusan International Film Festival and Best Director for helmer Lee Chung Ryul at the 45th Baeksang Arts Awards. The fact that the film was the first ever Korean documentary to screen in competition and to be nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in the US further underlines the universal appeal and craftsmanship which have seen it succeed where countless big budget and star studded productions have failed.
Such achievements are perhaps all the more amazing given the absolute simplicity of the documentary’s concept. The film follows an elderly, 79 year old farmer called Choi in rural Korea, and begins as he finds out that his beloved ox, with whom he was worked the land for 40 years, has cancer and will be dead within a year. Though Choi is devastated, and refuses to believe that the beast will soon no longer be with him, his wife Yi is more realistic, partly because she feels a deep seated resentment due to the fact that he treats it with more care than her. As the weeks and months pass, and the ox becomes sicker, Choi keeps forcing it into the fields, while his own health starts to deteriorate.
As a documentary, “Old Partner” is wholly compelling, being intimate rather than intrusive or exploitative, and offering a fascinating, plainly presented portrait of rural life, following Choi, Yi and the ox through their daily routines and work. The film essentially revolves around the farmer’s relationship with his ox, and the question as to whether or not he is right to keep working it. As such, though he clearly treats it with great affection, taking care of it better than his wife, tottering across the fields with huge piles of fodder on his back for it to eat and even saying that he will die when it dies, the film does become quite hard to watch in places, with the creature clearly in pain. At the same time however, Choi himself is going through similar tortures of his own, and his drive gives their bond an almost symbiotic feel, much to his wife’s increasing and unending frustration. The fact that the viewer is only too aware that both of them are on the road to ruin gives the film a certain tension and it makes for gripping viewing despite its naturalistic, meandering approach. Though unhurried, the film is short, and never wastes any of its running time. Lee manages to successfully walk the fine line between objectivity and manipulation, and the film is powerful and affecting without being so in a contrived manner and without ever overstepping the boundaries of the documentary form.
Its central relationships aside, the film also touches on a number of intriguing issues. Given the subject matter, the debate over traditional farming methods versus the use of machinery and pesticides is frequently raised. This is particularly important, as Choi’s refusal to shift from his basic plough to something more modern in many ways defines his character, his determination and stubbornness, and indeed his relationship with the ox. Another theme which comes up is the Korean government’s dealings with the US and the importing of beef. This makes for a few poignant moments during a trip to the city, as Choi and Yi pause with the ox in front of a crowd of protestors, and quite tragically during scenes where the farm’s finances worsen due to falling cattle prices. Such concerns enrich the film, though without ever being allowed to distract from its more human aspects and no trite conclusions are drawn.
Lee shows a great eye for detail, and for picking up on the little things to the viewer give a real sense of experience, an all important factor which makes the film even more immersive. Wisely, he neither romanticises nor overplays the harshness of their lives, and while he includes plenty of shots of the beautiful rural scenery and the local wildlife, these function subtly as a backdrop rather than as eye candy.
This sense of restraint and honesty is felt throughout “Old Partner”, a work of quiet though considerable power. Almost hypnotically watchable and both intellectually and emotionally impressive, it more than deserves its success, and should be enjoyed by viewers not usually fond of documentaries, and even those without an interest in farming or livestock.
Chung-Ryoul Lee (director) / Chung-Ryoul Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Won-gyoon Choi … Herself
Sam-soon Lee … Herself