In description, the Korean documentary Old Partner sounds adorable bordering on sickly sweet: It chronicles the symbiotic relationship between a 79-year-old farmer named Choi Won-kyun and his beloved ox, which has been toiling for him for 40 years. (That’s longer than many of Choi’s nine children have been around.) Every day, man and ox go through their rituals, with Choi laboring over a special gruel made from cut dandelions (he refuses to give the animal cattle feed, in spite of the convenience) and the ox, now a weary old bag of bones, trudging through foot-deep mud in the rice fields. Here’s a man who clearly loves an animal above all else, and while there’s sweetness in that—and an enviro-friendly message about farming the old-fashioned way, without machines or chemicals—the “above all else” part causes serious complications.
Old Partner isn’t entirely the story of man and ox shuffling off into the sunset together. It’s also the story of poverty, sacrifice, physical agony, and very real emotional tumult. That’s because Choi also has a long-suffering wife, Lee Sam-soon, whose every word is a lament over his hardheaded insistence on caring for the ox, whose health and happiness he’s unambiguously placed over hers. There are consequences to making the homemade gruel every day, or forsaking insecticides and seeding machines, and they’re in plain view in the wrenched postures of husband and wife, and the abject poverty that threatens to keep both of them from even being buried properly. Director Lee Chung-ryoul seems inclined toward making a gentle pastoral, with simple, lovely images of the countryside and the crusty old-timers still clinging to centuries-old farming tradition. But reality keeps intruding, bringing discord to what the audience—and perhaps even the filmmaker—assumes is the harmonious interaction between man and nature. Old Partner is, almost by accident, a richer, thornier film than it seems.