Thursday, June 25, 2015

NYAFF ’15: My Love, Don’t Cross that River

When Jo Byeong-man married Kang Kye-yeol, Korea was still occupied by Japan. For seventy-six years they were a happy couple, despite never having much money. Unfortunately, all mortal things must end. Jin Mo-young documented their final happy days together as well as their long goodbye in the surprise Korean box-office blockbuster, My Love, Don’t Cross that River (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.

When Jin started filming them, Jo was ninety-eight years young and his wife Kang was a youthful eighty-nine (they were already used to cameras, as the prior subjects of a KBS special report, Gray-Haired Lovers). You will actually come up with some awkward numbers if you do the math, but Kang explains her beloved was quite shy during their early years together and willing to wait for her to mature at her own pace. Eventually, they had twelve children together, but only six survived to see them into their golden years.

Frankly, considering their respective ages, Jo and Kang are impressively spry and frisky in the film’s initial scenes. There is no question they had a heck of a run together. Even though their union was a semi-arranged business, they clearly fell deeply in love. Sadly, time will finally catch up with Jo as he nears the century point. At this point, River becomes difficult to watch. However, our hearts really take a pummeling when Kang, recognizing time is short, makes offerings of burnt children’s clothing to the son and daughters they lost so long ago—but never forgot.

Much to everyone’s surprise, River became a sleeper sensation in South Korea, knocking Interstellar out of the top spot at the box-office. In their happier days, they were certainly an adorable couple. Yet, in addition to their great romance, they represent a bridge to the past, frequently wearing colorful traditional garments and residing in a modest home with modern appliances, but no indoor plumbing. They have seen it all (occupation, war, regime change, and dramatic Tiger-era economic growth), yet they still live much as they always have.

At times, River is uncomfortably intimate. Arguably, Jo’s painful last days merited greater privacy. Nevertheless, the longevity of their wedded bliss is quite inspiring. Yet, it is consolation offered by traditional rituals that provides the film’s most quietly devastating moments. Honest and endearing, My Love, Don’t Cross that River is recommended for slice of life doc watchers when it screens this Sunday (6/28) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.