Old Partner is a documentary from Korea showing the extreme devotion of an elderly farmer for the aging ox who has worked with him for 30 years. The resentful comments of the farmer’s wife add liveliness to scenes of slowly-paced farm routines, increasing interest in the film. Strong reviews will be necessary to build attention to this minimally-plotted view of rural struggles.
The film begins with the elderly couple, both with stooped backs, climbing to a temple. The wife mentions her husband’s dead companion—his ox. Flashbacks show the farm life of the three that has developed into an odd triangle. Choi Won-kyun, the farmer, is 79 years old. His wife Lee Sam-soon is 76. Their ox is 40, “possibly the oldest ox in Korea.” All of them are physically worn out form a life of arduous work. The married couple’s nine children live away from their parents.
Old Partner is the first theatrical documentary from director Chung-ryoul Lee. A visit to a cattle market reminded him of his father’s ox from his childhood. He said that before industrialization, the oxen and the men who owned them were the driving force of Korean agricultural development. After a five year search, he was fortunate to find the aged couple as they effectively personalize the hardships of traditional farm life.
In deteriorating health, the farmer uses a cane and cannot walk properly because of bad acupuncture. The ox dominates his life. He cuts straw for its fodder, rather than providing typical animal feed. Even though it would increase their crop yield, he refuses to utilize pesticides as a protection for his beloved animal. He wife is continually exasperated as the ox gets more concern from her husband than she does. Doing everything he can for his ox, he refuses to let his wife get medical treatment or false teeth. Her bitter view of her life’s disappointments, which she continually expresses to her husband, adds an emotional side to the largely silent scenes of the farmer and ox, a connection referred to as “a match made in heaven.” Discovering the grave condition of the ox, the farmer and his wife purchase a cow that gives birth to a very energetic calf. The calf is unlike anyone else in the film. The farmer persists in using the ox.
Director Lee (who also edited) has a keen visual sense, vividly showing the physical strain of the aged farm workers among beautiful shots of the natural setting. The lumbering ox slowly pulls the farmer in his cart. The farmer’s feet sinking into the mud while plowing with his ox pulls contrasts with the mechanized equipment he refuses to purchase that would make everyone’s life easier. In a striking scene, the infirm farmer crawls uphill during his labors. The director builds the physical and emotional conflicts into an unexpectedly absorbing look at determination in a vanishing way of life.
Distributor: Schalo Media
Director and Screenwriter: Chung-ryoul Lee
Producers: Goh Young-jae
Genre: Documentary; Korean-language, subtitled
Running Time: 78 min.
Release Date: December 30 NY