Old Partner highlights two things that most of us have forgotten or try very hard to forget. The first is that we will age and eventually die. The second is that machines and technology have separated us from the relationship we once had with animals.
In director Chung-ryoul Lee’s film, the three main characters are nearing the end of their lives. Choi Won-kyun is 79 and his wife Lee Sam-sun is 76. At a time when advertisement and entertainment industries are pushing for youth, it is a little jarring, and yet relieving, to see close ups of the married couple’s wrinkled sunken faces and hunched backs from daily labor in their farm in a remote village in South Korea. The third character is Choi’s beloved ox, the forty-year-old animal whose shaggy bony old body shares similarities to Choi’s face and body, much like the pet dogs and cats that start to look like their owners.
The deteriorating health of both Choi and the ox are painfully obvious. Choi’s neurologist tells him to rest and stop working so hard, and another doctor tells him he has a broken bone in his toe that can’t be reset because he never let it heal. In preparation, Choi and his wife get funeral portraits taken. The ox is predicted to have just one more year in him. It is inevitable that by the documentary’s end, one of them will die.
It is the film’s focus on the relationship of Choi and his ox that makes this a moving, captivating film. While neighboring farmers are seen using their machines with ease, Choi stubbornly refuses to move from his decades of tradition and keeps to the backbreaking methods of manual labor. While his wife weeds by hand, ankle deep in mud, Choi finds dandelions to feed the ox. Clearly, this man loves his ox. At one point, the half deaf farmer proclaims, “To me, this ox is better than a human being.” This is much to the chagrin of his poor wife, who constantly nags her husband that he takes better care of the ox than her. It oddly has a ring of truth, as she complains that she’s overworked, has lost her teeth and won’t be getting false teeth because Choi won’t take care of her. He crouches silently on the porch as she talks, then gets up to scratch the ox’s face, who was trying to get to it himself.
As the film nears its conclusion and the ox and Choi near closer and closer to their deathbeds, the intense connection between human and animal is poignant, and is reminiscent of an almost forgotten time when man and beast had a tender working relationship with one another.