Friend to the End

In an old farmer’s relationship with his ox, we witness nature’s ancient rhythms

A heartfelt documentary, “Old Partner” chronicles the bittersweet relationship between 79-year-old Choi and his 40-year-old ox in South Korea. The ox has, Choi’s wife says, “met the right master.” And it soon becomes clear that Choi cares more for his animal than he does his spouse. Given that she hectors him to stop working and complains constantly and bitterly about her unlucky lot in life, perhaps this is not surprising.

“Old Partner” nicely captures the deliberate pace of Choi’s existence. He is an old man, with bad hearing and a bad leg — he walks with cane —but he is a hard worker who tills his soil and plants his rice dutifully. He raises his crops the old-fashioned way — by hand — refusing to use machinery, always favoring his prized ox. Choi does not give his animal cattle feed to eat, but makes a gruel for him, a “back-breaking process,” according to his exasperated wife. Yet it is what Choi thinks is best — and nothing is too good for his ox.

Choi also insists on not using insecticides on his crops because they might poison his ox. His fierce loyalty to his animal stems from the support his “co-worker” gives him. Were it not for his ox, Choi admits, he would not have been able to educate and raise his nine children.

Director Lee Chung-ryoul makes the symbiotic relationship between man and animal clear in several scenes. A shot of Choi and his ox walking in lockstep is visual shorthand for the bond they share. Likewise, a simple close-up of Choi placing his hand on the ox’s back conveys tremendous emotion. These gentle scenes are as telling as Choi’s refusal to sell his animal, and his frustration about having to face the fact that he must soon be replaced.

When a vet explains that the elderly ox has about a year of life left in him, Choi practically denies the fact — just like he ignores the doctors who tell him to stop working because of the risk of heart attack or severe foot injury. The film shows, repeatedly, that Choi is as stubborn as a mule. This quality only makes him more heroic.

“Old Partner” adeptly conveys the barebones existence Choi, his ox, and his wife eke out. Viewers can sense the baking heat and appreciate the slow pace of life as this elderly couple toil in their fields. The feeling of mud oozing over their feet as they diligently work the rice paddies is palpable.

The film is full of breathtaking shots of the South Korean landscape along with quieter, more intimate moments, such as the appearance of a frog and the calls of local birds. Even with a running time of just 77 minutes, the unrushed pacing of “Old Partner” conveys the endless cycle of nature.

Director Lee shrewdly employs an observational approach to his subjects, allowing their lives to unfold naturally and realistically, and the result is fascinating. “Sweetgrass,” an equally fine documentary about American sheep farmers opening January 6 at Film Forum, applies the same narrative style to similar effect.

“Old Partner” features only a few informal interviews. A handful of scenes in which the musical background dominates are poignant, adding an emotional component to the special relationship playing out on screen. They never seem cloying or forced.

Perhaps the most curious element of the film is its narrative structure. The documentary opens in 2007 with the death of one of the characters, but most of the story takes place in 2005, during the final year Choi and his ox spend together. The flashback narrative is not uninteresting, but given the tear-jerking quality of the story, it is surprising that Lee decided to reveal the end of the relationship at the film’s start.

This is a minor complaint about a film that provides such a compelling portrayal of life in rural South Korea. “Old Partner” shows the universal bond between man and animal and how Choi’s ox gives his meager existence meaning. When he goes to town to visit a neurologist for an MRI, he takes his ox with him. A shot of the animal “parked” alongside cars in the lot creates an amusing contrast, even as it emphasizes that sophisticated technology continues to coexist with the pride sustained by doing things in old-fashioned ways.

Complete Information:

OLD PARTNER

Directed by Lee Chung-Ryoul

Shcalo Media Group

In Korean with English subtitles

Opens Dec. 30

Film Forum

209 W. Houston St.

filmforum.org

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