My Love, Don’t Cross That River

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MY LOVE, DON’T CROSS THAT RIVER, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, in Korean with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3 chiles

She’s push­ing ninety. He’s al­most 100. They’ve been mar­ried over three­quar­ters of a cen­tury. They’re still in love. They dress iden­ti­cally in col­or­ful tra­di­tional cloth­ing. They play and tease each other like kids. When they go to sleep on the hard floor of their sim­ple ru­ral house by a river in South Korea’s Gang­won Prov­ince, he gen­tly ca­resses her cheek. He needs the lights left on to sleep. He sings to her, and she tells him what a won­der­ful voice he has. She cooks for him, and says noth­ing makes her hap­pier than see­ing him eat. They hold hands when they walk to town.

He’s not as strong as he used to be. When we first meet By­ong-man Jo, he can still hoist a bun­dle of fire­wood onto his back and carry it home, but Gye-yeul Kang wor­ries about her husband’s flag­ging strength and health, and as time goes on, we see him grow­ing thin­ner, weaker, and wracked with an un­nerv­ing cough. “Time passes, peo­ple get old,” Jo re­marks. “There’s noth­ing you can do about it.”

Jin Mo-young’s doc­u­men­tary cov­ers about 15 months at the end of Jo’s life. We know it’s the end, be­cause in the open­ing scene we see Kang weep­ing in the snow by the river that serves as metaphor for that fi­nal jour­ney. We progress through the sea­sons, with a good no­tion that the end will come in win­ter.

There’s lit­tle in the way of flash­back, and what there is comes in the form of voice-over from Kang. She re­mem­bers how they met and mar­ried when she was a girl of four­teen. Jo worked for her fa­ther. He waited for her to be ready for in­ti­macy, and when she was seven­teen it was she who made the first move. “And then we were truly mar­ried,” she re­mem­bers. They had six chil­dren who lived, an­other six who died young. When Jo’s end is near, Kang burns his clothes so he’ll have some­thing to wear on the other side of the river, and she buys some chil­dren’s things to feed into the flames so he can give the kids some­thing to put on when he sees them.

Jin’s style is un­ob­tru­sive ob­ser­va­tion, and it’s ten­der and com­pas­sion­ate, though from time to time we may feel a bit un­com­fort­able, and won­der if we have any right to be there. His cin­e­matog­ra­phy is lovely. His edit­ing and pac­ing is mostly good, although the old cou­ple’s play­ful fights matched to sea­sons — throw­ing leaves at each other in the fall, toss­ing snow in the win­ter, splash­ing wa­ter in the sum­mer — come to feel a bit coyly staged.

The emo­tional tug of this fi­nal cur­tain on a life­time of mar­riage is pow­er­ful. If you have tears, pre­pare to shed them. South Korea must be awash. This is the most suc­cess­ful in­de­pen­dent film in that coun­try’s his­tory. — Jonathan Richards

Grow­ing old to­gether: By­ong-man Jo and Gye-yeul Kang

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