Old Partner (2008)
Director: Lee Chung-ryoul
Plot: An elderly farmer lives out his final days with his wife and a loyal ox in the Korean countryside.
Awards: Nom. for Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary (Sundance).
Such is the pleasantness of hearing cowbells ring soothingly on an aged ox that an old man’s eyes brighten, making his splitting headache more bearable. The old man lies on the floor of his wooden shack. His wife laments about being unlucky to be married to him and living a life of suffering.
The next day, the old man continues to work despite doctor’s orders, ploughing the fields with his trusted ox of forty years. He has been a farmer all his life, feeding and clothing nine children who now have families of their own. Time has passed, but the old man and his loyal ox remain the best of friends, toiling away in their twilight years.
Such is the simplicity of Old Partner, a 78-minute South Korean documentary, that it is difficult not to be moved by the story. It is a story about life, an intertwining of creature and Man, bonded and bounded by time. The director is Lee Chung-ryoul, who makes his feature debut with this heartwarming slice of rural life.
Old Partner was No. 1 at the box-office in S. Korea when it was released to extremely positive word-of-mouth, boosted by its Best Documentary win at the Pusan International Film Festival. This is remarkable considering that documentaries generally don’t do well in the country, and that the film was shot over the course of one year for less than $150,000.
Old Partner is largely engaging, at times surprisingly so, despite its simplicity. Perhaps it is the no-frills capture of the essence of the human condition and its vulnerability to the ravages of time that makes Lee’s film a fruitful and worthwhile watch.
The influx of technology is also another key theme that sees the clash between tradition and modernity in relation to farming techniques, best manifested visually in a single shot where we see the old man resolutely tending to his fields with his bare hands, while the adjacent fields are worked on by someone on a tractor.
The old couple’s children visit them every festive season. They persuade their frail father to sell the old ox and live a more comfortable life. The old man does not respond, but tears well up in his eyes. The next day, we see the ox pulling him in a cart after a hard day’s work; they are completely inseparable. You can be assured that after watching this documentary, the next time you hear a cowbell you will remember their story. And that is all that matters.
Verdict: A farmer, his wife and an ox, toiling away in their twilight years - so simple, yet so moving.
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