Rooftop Films @ Sundance: Old Partner Review


In my last post, about The Yes Men Fix the World, I wrote about recent and more obvious manipulations in documentary filmmaking, acknowledging that every documentary contains subjective choices. Lee Chung-ryoul’s wonderful film Old Partner contains more traditional manipulations. The film observes a 79-year-old Korean farmer, his wife, and the ox they’ve had for 40 years, and from a jumbled (and essentially banal) year in their life, the director crafts a narrative with multiple levels of significance, but with the simplicity, charm and clear emotional arc of a children’s book.

During the film, the central trinity — father, mother, and (surrogate child) ox — get progressively old and feeble, struggling to maintain their way of life, or finally change it, or lastly leave it. One friend jokes that the farmer’s ox is better than a son, because he never left the farm. But the wife nags her husband to ditch the ox for a tractor, as many neighbors have done. She’s left feeding the ox, doing extra work because the ox is slow. Sometimes playfully, sometimes with bitter cruelty, the wife keeps up a constant nag: “I won’t live,” she complains, “unless that ox dies.”

The farmer stages protests that he wastes less of the crop by working slowly, and that food harvested by ox tastes better, because there are no chemicals on the land. But it’s clear that the real issue between husband and wife is not merely about practicality, but tradition — she is embarrassed by the old ox, and wants a more modern life; he is as wed to his old ways as he is to his wife, and takes pride in his grueling labors.

Sitting on their porch in the rain, her eating, him with his head down on his folded arms, the wife gripes that the farmer loves the ox more than he loves her. He doesn’t look up, barely grumbling a response. But a second later, when the ox moans, his head jerks up that direction. It’s a telling and comic moment, but is that actually how it played out in real life? Was she really saying just that at that instant, did the ox really interrupt, did the farmer really look at the ox? Or was it all done with clever editing? Hard to say, but the point is rather irrelevant: whether it’s chance that the director happened upon such a concise explication or whether he crafted it in post, the director believes from the totality of his observances that this moment is somehow representative, true. It works for me.

A trip to the city by ox-cart offers some light-hearted contrasts — the ox in a parking lot full of cars, protesters chanting, “Stop the Korea-USA Free Trade Agreement! Here come the mad cows,” just as our sober old ox passes by. A sympathetic neighbor comments that “the ox found the right master, and the master found the right ox,” but later the wife argues the opposite, that she and the ox led a tragic life for having lucked into living with such a hard-driving, stubborn man. The ox expresses no opinion.

But the film does imply an oxen ideology. When a new young ox comes along, the old ox is seen looking on with what could only be described as jealousy. When a man offers a pittance to buy the ox (“When do cow dealers ever say anything good about a cow,” the wife mocks), the ox looks hurt. And when the ox is near death, a sequence of shots shows a tear in the eye of the farmer, then his wife, and then the ox. Of course animals do have feelings, but the concise way the filmmaker crafts the shots and edits anthropomorphizes the beast to explicate the emotions. In Old Partner, the manipulations forge a film that is sweet, witty, poignant and noble.

* All quotations are paraphrased to the best of my dark-theater note taking and, in this instance, translation from Korean to English.

– Mark Elijah Rosenberg, Founder & Artistic Director, Rooftop Films