Very little actually happens in Old Partner (South Korea, 2009), which promotional blurbs describe as a poignant story about the touching relationship between an old man and his ox, who dies after 40 years of service to his aged master. The pace of the film is excruciatingly slow and mirrors the painful, halting gait of the old farmer and his beloved animal friend.
This film got the Cinematic Vision Award when it screened at Washington DC’s Silverdocs Festival in 2009, an annual event co-sponsored by the Discovery Channel and the AFI in Silver Spring. If you have the patience, this documentary yields an insightful portrait of old age and its infirmities; the deep devotion that can grow between people and animals; and the remains of a long and loveless marriage.
The title “Old Partner” is a double entendre, whether conscious or not is hard to tell. The white-haired, weathered old man in constant pain has two “old partners.” First is his faithful, but ailing ox. This interspecies odd couple is the poignant part.
In fact, the film is dedicated “to all the oxen and fathers of this land who toiled to feed and clothe their children.” No mention of wives and mothers, who are excluded from acknowledgment, signaling the underlying cultural misogyny that permeates the film.
The husband and wife are also “old partners.” But while the plodding ox is valiant and valued for its continued service, the wife is snubbed repeatedly. She nags and complains constantly. The film maker seems to be saying, “No wonder he prefers his ox.”
This poor lady is not happy, and who can blame her? Seen through a Western and post-women’s liberation lens, she comes off more sympathetically. She’s just telling it like it is. She knows where she stands, and she resents it.
“He takes better care of that animal than he does of me,” she says, as a vet examines the ox. “He never gets medicine for me.” Yet, ever the dutiful wife, she accompanies the old man to the doctor and nurses him when he is ill.
The old man loves his ox so much that he hand-cuts fresh, tender, green fodder for it every day before or instead of doing farm work. He feeds the ox in small handfuls, like a baby, and refuses to use pesticides because, though it would make the weeding easier on his wife, it would harm the ox.
“We owe everything to that ox,” he says, as it trudges through its last days, dragging a rough wooden cart that carries firewood and ferries the old man to and from town.
What’s a wife to do when her husband only has eyes for his ox? She was 16 when she married, bore nine children, and did farm labor for so long without the aid of machinery and insecticides that her upper body is permanently parallel to the earth.
“He has driven me as hard as the ox for 40 years,” she says, but still she gets no respect for her labor.
Her back is bent, her face is leathery, she is almost toothless, and she gripes that she does “all the work around here.” That’s not hard to believe, given her triple workload of farm chores, housework, and child care.
She wants her husband to stop working, as the doctor has advised, and to sell the old ox, both of which he refuses to do.
“When that ox dies, I will die,” the husband says.
“When you die, I will stop farming,” she vows.
One morning the old ox does not wake up. At the burial, husband and wife watch from a knoll overlooking the grave site as a truck covers the ox’s body with dirt. They sit separately, far from each other.
Without the love of his life, the old man will surely die soon, as promised. The wife will stop farming, perhaps move into town to live with one of her children. And finally find relief from a lifetime of being married to the wrong man.