By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Chung-ryoul Lee’s documentary “Old Partner” begins with pain. An old man climbs a long set of steps to a temple. He carries a cane. He pauses after each step. He inhales sharply after each step, wondering if he will ever get to the top. The notion of enduring pain and suffering continues throughout the film.
Most of the film concentrates on a real-life family in rural South Korea. We see the old man, farmer Won-kyun Choi, his wife Sam-soon, and their draft animal, a seemingly-unnamed ox.
The farmer is 79 years old and his wife is a little younger. The ox is about 40 years old. The man and the animal have worked together for half of the man’s life.
Won-kyun crawls on his hands and knees during much of his labor. His left ankle, no thicker than a child’s forearm, got mangled in a botched acupuncture treatment.
That was approximately 60 years ago. Sometimes, he uses a single cane, and at times, he will use one on each side. Sometimes, he just crawls.
Director Lee doesn’t always find the correct tone for “Old Partner.” To switch between settings, he often cues up intrusive processed piano music. Within the film, the farmer and his wife listen to a dodgy transistor radio. The film’s tinkly tunes and news of the nation contrast with the couple’s daily labors within their own tiny universe. The overdubbed music simply intrudes on the mood of the documentary.
Wide-angle shots capture Won-kyun’s daily trips to the fields, half-asleep in a rickety cart. He claims the ox, pulling the cart, and always pulls to the roadside when a car comes by. But for the most part, we don’t see automobiles, trucks, or modern farming machines. The farm could adapt more fully to modern life, but Won-kyun does not want that. A few close-ups take in his battered face as he explains. He even avoids insecticides, fearing they will harm the ox.
Without insecticide, Won-kyun and Sam-soon spend a lot of time pulling and chopping weeks. Eventually, the viewer wonders if Won-kyun simply and stubbornly doesn’t want to change. The viewer also wonders if he has a deeper emotional attachment to his beast than his wife.
Other scenes, photographed in slow motion, seem suspicious. We aren’t sure if the director used some kind of special effect to underline the points he wanted to make. Artificial drama isn’t needed when your three protagonists can barely put one foot in front of the other. A short simple walk becomes a mighty struggle for any of them.
When the director sticks to his subjects, the movie shines. Lee’s camera rearranges the unlikely trio in ever-changing patterns. Lee lingers on Sam-soon going off on one of her endless rants, and then the film cuts to Choi curled into an unresponsive ball on the farmhouse floor. He’ll then show the ox with its calm, enigmatic presence. Lee shows them in a different order to a different effect.
The director, with a few exceptions, doesn’t force the details on the viewer. He trusts that as we get comfortable with life on the screen, we’ll notice what’s important. Sam-soon’s eyes seem tiny compared to the rings of wrinkles surrounding them. The ox tramps slowly through life with matted fur and a clanging bell around its neck. Little by little, these impressions add up to a larger and deeper portrait. ♦
“Old Partner” plays Feb. 24–March 4. The film will show daily at 7 p.m. (plus Friday and Saturday at 5:30 p.m.) at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Ave., Seattle. For prices, directions to the theater, and updated information, call 206-829-7863 or visit www.nwfilmforum.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.