The life expectancy of an ox is about 20 years. The life expectancy of a rural South Korean man is about 67 years. Early in this captivating documentary, a provincial vet in the little southeastern village of Bonghwa is examining the ox of a 79-year-old farmer named Choi.
"How old is this animal?" the vet asks, dubiously inspecting the ancient, withered, bony, mud-and-dung-caked beast.
"40," the old farmer tells him.
"40?" says the astonished vet. "He'll die soon."
The old man shakes his head in shocked disbelief. "That's not true!"
So begins one of the oddest true-life love stories you'll ever see. It's really a romantic triangle, with Choi's 76-year-old wife as the third party. And she's none too happy with the arrangement. "I married the wrong man," is she constantly complains.
Not that she had any choice. She was delivered by her parents at the age of 16 into marriage with Choi, whom she met on their wedding day. Over the next few decades they worked the rice paddies together and she gave him a bunch of children, and somewhere along that line they acquired the ox. The kids have long since grown and gone off to the city. The ox remains.
With the ox's days officially numbered, Choi goes to the cattle market and buys a cow to share the work. The cow adds a fourth spoke to the wheel of this ungainly romantic vehicle, and she is not sweet-tempered. Not to put too fine a point on it, this cow is a bitch, and she swings her horns into the old ox's face when they share a feed trough.
The ox does not have the luxury of a name, but she is treated to tender loving care by old Choi. He cuts dandelion greens for her, and prepares a special gruel for her feed.
"I'm working, and he gives the dandelions to the ox first," Mrs. Choi mutters grumpily. "All my teeth have fallen out, and he won't get me false teeth!" Resentment is the fuel she runs on, and powerless to do much else to affect their lives, she is always complaining. A Korean phrase translated as "Woe is me!" makes up a large percentage of her verbal output. She feels, not without cause, that her husband loves and treats the ox better than he does her. "Those two are a match made in heaven," chuckles a villager, and he doesn’t mean Mrs. Choi. In one memorable image, Choi rides in the cart with the ox pulling and Mrs. Choi pushing from behind. "All he knows is that ox," she grumbles. "He'll just work me to death!"
Sometimes she shifts her sympathies and shares common cause with the ox. "Both of us have led such hard lives," she tells the beast, "all because we met the wrong man." But more often the ox is the target of her bile, and she is always nagging Choi to sell it. When the children come to visit from the city, they join in their mother's chorus, though they acknowledge that the ox "earned the money to feed and educate us," and was in effect their ticket to the emancipated lives they now lead. Finally Choi is pressured into taking the old girl (the ox) to the cattle market. But is there a buyer out there for this staggering, wheezing bag of bones and leather?
Choi's health is deteriorating as well, and part of the poignancy of this film is the knowledge that when one of them goes, life will be much harder and more painful for the other two. The unusually long lives they've all lived are probably due in part to their symbiosis.
This is a documentary, but it has more the feel of a story. The director, a South Korean television producer named Lee Chung-ryoul, originally planned to feature his own parents in the film, prompted by a desire to atone for the guilt he felt about their lives and his departure. Lee's parents were rural subsistence farmers like the Chois, and like the Choi children, Lee fled the countryside and established a career in the city. As is the case the world over, the old ways and traditions are dying out with breathless rapidity as the information revolution opens up the rural world to life beyond the farm and the old ways.
When he found this old couple with their ancient ox, thought to be the oldest in Korea, Lee felt he had the right elements for his film. The Chois were of about the same age, relationship, and circumstances as his parents. Lee spent over a year with them, as the ox continued to defy the actuarial tables and kept pushing the envelope of the production schedule, and his production company grew impatient for the film to wrap. The end, of course, is foreordained, and the movie opens with the old couple reminiscing about the ox.
This is the largest-grossing independent film in South Korea's history. People seem hungry for a taste of disappearing traditions, and audiences here will find a nostalgic sweetness to enjoy despite the foreignness of the tale. Even at a modest 78 minutes, there's a little too much slowness and repetitiveness to this off-beat documentary. But then, how fast can you expect a 40-year-old ox to move?
© Text 2010 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be