July 17, 2010

Old Partner: The Past Is Around Us All the Time

To some extent, every documentary is about a passing way of life. In Old Partner, the near-dead culture is farming before tractors and pesticides. Director Lee Chung-ryoul's primary subjects are a decrepit farmer, his toothless wife and their ox. As the three seed, cultivate and harvest crops repeatedly over a period of two to three years, the arthritic trio register as the faint final echo of an era that ended a century ago. There's nothing particularly nostalgic about seeing the physical toll that comes with doing everything by hand but there is something spellbindingly moving about watching an ox pull two passengers in downtown traffic as suited protesters declaim imported beef from America. And though he hasn't a line in the movie, that ox -- more than either owner -- comes to represent the bygone age most poignantly. Having worked alongside the stoic farmer and his pestering spouse for 40 years, this shaggy beast is the picture of perservering self-sacrifice. Is he a four-legged slave or a symmpathetic sidekick from another species? Whatever he is, you grow to see him as an equal partner in a brutally rigorous life that counts work as a kind of penance and a kind of reward. Understated poetry to be sure.

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