My Love, Don’t Cross That River
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