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Friday, Dec. 25, 2009
The lovable ox beats the nagging wife hands down
By KAORI SHOJI
"Old Partner" (Released in Japan as "Ushino Suzuoto") is one extraordinary film, breaking several laws of gravity, logic and marketing while being entirely unselfconscious about it. A South Korean documentary that features the three principles of an old, old man, an old, old ox and the old man's slightly younger wife (that's five olds in a single sentence), who would have thought it would break multiple box-office records, win a stash of important awards and become one of Korea's most beloved, talked-about films of last year? In that country's formidably talented and prolific film industry this isn't just an accomplishment, it's an eye-popping, jaw-gaping phenomenon.
No antiaging is happening here; Won Kyun Choi looks every single minute of his 78 years, as does his wife who is a loud, nagging, wiry little woman of 75. She repeatedly informs the camera that she made a big mistake in marrying him, and wishes she could go back and do things differently. This, after 50-odd years of marriage, nine children and a green gem of a farm that her husband has labored on every single day for as long as anyone can remember. She nags him to get a tractor and use pesticide but he stubbornly refuses, preferring instead to work alongside his trusted and ancient ox, now 40 years old and exceeding the usual age limit of bovines by a quarter of a century. Choi's deeply creased face, his permanently bowed back and scarred, work-hardened black hands are sights most of us have forgotten or just never seen — as Choi's wife keeps reminding him, everyone else has moved into the 21st century while he's still stuck in the muck of a pre-Korean War landscape. Choi can give her no other explanation for his lifestyle other than the fact that he wants to "keep my ox." Pesticides will damage the feed grass (handmown by Choi and piled in a trough for the animal to munch on) and the purchase of a tractor will have the watchful neighbors hauling the ox off to the slaughterhouse. One of Choi's recurring (and touching) habits is to become alert and restive every time he hears a metal clanging — he thinks it's the sound of the bell attached to the collar of the ox. We learn later that Choi is nearly deaf.
Director Chung-Ryoul Lee films in such a way that the old man and the ox are almost always together, their faces at the same level, their similar expressions testimonials to decades of grueling, uncomplaining labor. If this were some Hollywood, "The Good Earth" kind of rendition, the old man would have sold his property for a pillar of cash, gotten himself a snazzy wardrobe of tailored suits, several mistresses and maybe build the ox a huge retirement home cum stable. Such a predicament has no place here — the old man wishes for nothing more than to pursue a long, slow, continuous road to quiet obliteration right along with his ox — a true partner in a way that his wife had never been, apparently. By the end of the film, everyone on both sides of the screen would have wept at least once — not to mention the ox, which sheds copious tears in a sadistically sentimental moment.
Admittedly, the film isn't exactly audience friendly. Some scenes seem too protracted and meaningless — the old man squatting in the field to take a brief break and the camera remains fixed on his sad, scrunched face for like, an eternity. Then the ox moos off camera and the old man readies himself for more work. The wife better have dinner ready and waiting, that's all I can say.