When filmmaker Jin Mo-young met Jo Byeong-man and Kang Kye-yeol they had already been married for three quarters of a century. Jo was 98 and Kang was 89. A year and a few months later, when Jo passed, his wife was left alone for the first time in 76 years. They met when she was 14. They’d raised six children together, as well as a few pets, and spent their golden years wearing matching outfits and having snowball fights. Their love was constant, quiet, diminutive and inspiring.
They were also two of 2014’s biggest movie stars, at least in South Korea. The film that Jin made about the 15 months he spent with them, My Love, Don’t Cross That River, is the most financially successful South Korean documentary ever made. It opened that November, and as of the following February had reached a total of 3.73 million admissions. It finished 10th at the box office for 2014 and beat the previous documentary record holder by almost a million tickets sold. For context, South Korea only has a population of about 51 million. The success of My Love, Don’t Cross That River is roughly equivalent to an American documentary grossing over $200 million, which has never happened.
The film plays this weekend as part of New York Asian Film Festival, so you can see for yourself what sort of documentary is capable of causing such an unprecedented financial stir. Its subjects are remarkably charming, their love a model of both tranquil compatibility and resilient playfulness. Within just the first 20 minutes of the 86-minute movie they have a snowball fight, a water fight and a similar battle among the dead autumn leaves. Love, it seems, consists of equal parts cuddling and throwing things at one another.
Yet if this adorable image can warm the hearts of an audience, the inevitable death of almost-centenarian Jo is an equal and opposite force. The film begins and ends with the same scene, Kang wailing at her husband’s tomb. It’s a beautiful shot, Kang framed under the snow-covered trees as she stops to look backat the final resting place of her best friend. The tears don’t stop there, either. The couple had twelve children but only half survived to become adults. After learning of Jo’s illness, Kang purchases longjohns for the six that they lost, so that Jo can greet them with warm clothes in the afterlife. My Love, Don’t Cross That River is an emotional roller coaster, lightly raising its spirits with scenes of Jo and Kang in their brightly colored matching outfits and then diving again into mortality with naught but a moment’s notice.
To call Jin’s directorial style emotionally manipulative would be accurate, in a sense, but would also miss the point. He isn’t sneaky or subtle enough to be really manipulate, but rather takes a more aggressive and honest approach. The music is assertive and near-constant, announcing every development in the slow arc toward mourning. There’s equal focus on the moments of mirth, the playful tossing about of leaves and the advent of their dog’s adorable litter of six puppies. Jin’s longest takes are those in scenes of great sadness or turmoil, such as an argument among their children at a family dinner or the above shot of Kang at the graveside. First and foremost this is a film made from carefully selected moments of emotional power.
Much more could likely be written about why My Love, Don’t Cross That River has been so successful. A lot of it has to do with the specific context of South Korea, the appeal of images of rural life and other cultural touchstones that aren’t common knowledge for an American critic. There’s also the further complicating role of reality TV, where Jin saw Jo and Kang for the first time. Hits like this happen for a number of reasons, most of which are hard to pin down.
But something perhaps can be gleaned from the 2009 documentary that set the now-broken box office record, Old Partner. Directed by newcomer Lee Chung-ryoul, it reached 2.93 million admissions and finished 14th at the box office in 2009. It’s the story of an 80-year-old farmer and his 40-year-old ox, each stubbornly going about life the way they always have in spite of the obstacles of age. The man’s wife just wants him to sell the animal, and their arguments make this film more acerbic than its romantic successor. The comedy of an wearied ox is also qualitatively different from that of elderly people, the laughs from its deadpan stare lending Old Partner a wryer sensibility than the heartwarming chuckles of My Love, Don’t Cross That River.
In other ways, however, the two films are uncannily alike. Structurally, they’re almost identical. They both begin and end with mourning over the death of a main character, in Old Partner’s case that of the ox. Each director fills the intervening hour or so with the shared lives of their featured best friends, offering physical and emotional support to each other. This support then extends to the audience, whose experience began with a traumatic scene of mourning. Neither film includes much about the youthful past of their subjects. There are no extended dips into archival footage, and very little wistful reminiscing. They are both about the lives of the aged, with all of the languidness and mortality that entails.
That makes it even more fascinating that, according to data from South Korea’s largest cinema chain, 54.2% of the audience members for My Love, Don’t Cross That River were in their 20s. Jo and Kang’s 76-year marriage has a resonance beyond their circumstances, a universality of appeal that extends well beyond the demographics of their age. Now the film has another chance to reach further, this time internationally. And while it likely won’t break any box office records outside of its home country (it currently lacks US distribution), its story of love and grief is certainly universal enough to appeal to an American audience.
My Love, Don’t Cross That River screens Sunday, June 28th as part of New York Asian Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Old Partner is available on DVD.