A few days ago, the Cinema Eye Honors announced this year’s list of “The Unforgettables,” the most memorable documentary subjects of the year. It’s a shame that Jo Byeong-man and Kang Kye-yeol are not on that list, but their film, My Love, Don’t Cross That River, has unfortunately not yet been released in America (outside of showing at the New York Asian Film Festival, where Daniel Walber also reviewed it). I’m surprised this is the case, because it’s a gigantic hit in its own country, South Korea, and is such because it’s a beautiful little love story that easily captures the hearts of its audience, no matter where they’re from just so long as they’re human. We get great docs focused on romantic couples too infrequently, but when we do, as with Planet of Snail, Cutie and the Boxer and Life Itself, their amorous charms are irresistible.
This one, like Life Itself, is also a tearjerking film, one that caused the audience I saw it with at Dok Leipzig to provide an extra-textual live score of sniffling throughout the second half. The subjects of My Love, Don’t Cross That River are a couple who’ve been married for 75 years, and it’s not a spoiler to immediately point out that Byeong-man, the 98-year-old husband, dies at the end. That’s not a surprise, because the film begins with a shot of 89-year-old Kye-yeol wailing in front of a grave. And he was old. And coughing the kind of cough that in classic Hollywood movies is foreshadowing for a character’s impending demise.
So why do we still get so emotional after only 85 minutes of knowing these people? It’s not actually in response to Byeong-man’s death, at least not totally, but to Kye-yeol’s grief. We cry for her loss, having seen in her and heard from her regarding the love she has for the man she’s been with since she was only 14. We feel for the half that was once a whole. And director Jin Mo-young does show Kye-yeol in enormous pain from grief. Her tears are contagious, although there is absolutely no way any one of us can truly know or identify with what she’s feeling. Not for Byeong-man specifically, that is.
Still, that’s the magic of movie storytelling, to give it the best shot. My Love, Don’t Cross That River begins with a series of scenes rushing through the seasons. First Byeong-man and Kye-yeol are raking leaves outside their home, and he proceeds to throw batches at his wife. Then is a snow-covered scene, and they have a little fun tossing the white stuff at each other. Next is a springtime moment with a playful water fight. They are a sprightly couple, adorable in their enduring dalliance and the caring way he still picks her flowers and she looks out for his health as she recommends eating snow for improvement in his eyesight. The initial compilation of such scenes allows us to quickly love these two characters and to love their love.
Soon, though, there is a lot of talk of what’s to come, mainly from her. When a pet dies, she acknowledges that it went surprisingly before her husband, but he will soon follow. She prepares for either he or she to die soon by buying long-johns for their six children who’d died at a young age, stating that whoever goes first is tasked with bringing the items of clothing to the other side for the waiting sons and daughters (this is a part of Korean tradition). Byeong-man, meanwhile, talks of getting to 100 years, and her response is that he better not because she’s getting too old to cook for him. It’s all an understanding of death’s inevitability, yet when it comes no expectation nor preparedness can keep it from being devastating.
There is a parallel in what that means for someone truly experiencing loss and what that means for a movie audience watching that person, but the lines are uneven and there’s quite a distance between them. Our being sad, maybe to the point of tears, in spite of our expectations of what’s to come is almost even an insult to the real person and her sadness. Not just because we know more than she did about Byeong-man’s certain death before the film is finished but because it’s also, for our sake and regardless of it being nonfiction, only a movie. Unlike Kye-yeol, we’re able to go back and spend the same time with Byeong-man we did before. He, as we know him, is never gone from existence.
Except in the fact that for now My Love, Don’t Cross That River is not easily seen whenever we want. Not until someone picks it up for some sort of U.S. distribution. For the time being, the film and its characters are at least unforgettable to the point that I’ve been replaying scenes in my head for a few days now. If that memorability meant I was constantly empathizing with the subjects, I’d be persistently in a state of sorrow. Instead, it’s caused a great amount of joy, that these subjects exist — not existed — due to their having been documented.
This review was originally published during Dok Leipzig on October 31, 2015.