Film Review: Old Partner

South Korean documentary-narrative hybrid centers on an aging couple and their ox.

Old Partner is set in the South Korean countryside, where writer-director Lee Chung-ryoul discovered an elderly farming couple and their ox who is twice the age of other bovines. A conflation of documentary and narrative filmmaking, the movie is a snapshot of the last year of the ox’s life, and a wistful portrait of South Korea’s agrarian past. The farmer, Choi Won-kyun, a curmudgeonly octogenarian, and his complaining wife Lee Sam-soon, have not mechanized their farm because he insists on tilling the fields with his “old partner.” The crusty, aging ox, Sam-soon’s often justifiable complaints about their lifestyle, and the couple’s senescence combine to create a downward-spiraling narrative fueled by Chung-ryoul’s baffling nostalgia.

At first it seems that Old Partner simply fails to transcend a cultural divide—and that may be part of the problem—but the movie’s lack of appeal actually stems from Chung-ryoul’s inability to communicate what he finds so compelling about the couple. While devotion is celebrated throughout the film, oddly enough it is not the longstanding love and faithfulness of husband and wife, but rather the bond of man and ox. When Won-kyun, ill and injured, stubbornly refuses to give up farming, he works the ox nearly to death, and risks the well-being of his other lifelong partner with whom he’s had nine children. Chung-ryoul dedicates the film to “all oxen and fathers of this land,” perpetuating the patriarchal attitudes which sentimentalize the selfish and antediluvian sensibilities of the farmer, and which negate Sam-Soon’s obvious contribution to the life of her family.

Had Chung-ryoul framed Old Partner as a contemplation on aging, which is one of the movie’s underlying themes, then its narrative arc would not have proved so troublesome. Won-kyun’s ambivalence, and Sam-soon’s reproachful remarks to him and about him, might also have assumed their proper proportions. The ox, rather than being an oppressive and prosaic part of the narrative, would be understood in the way that it is during the first cattle auction, about halfway through the film: As the farmer searches for a “working ox,” a replacement for “old partner,” and is told that cattle are not bred to work anymore, the sentimentality which informs the rest of the film falls away. Won-kyun’s dispassionate treatment of the ox and his wife is suddenly transparent—his animal’s imminent demise represents the indolence despised by a man accustomed to purposeful labor.
—Maria Garcia