Every morning, before the crack of dawn, an 79-year-old man gets up to prepare a gourmet meal for his 40-year-old ox. He roasts potatoes and a variety of vegetables, grounding them down to a paste and serves them under hay to his best friend.
“Old Partner” is a story of the truest friendship. Recorded in a farming town in South Korea, the film documents the last year of the unnamed ox’s life, one in which he continues to pull a cart every day carrying the old man, his nagging (but endearing) wife and their farming supplies out to the fields and back again. In a contemporary world where all of his neighbors are using machines and cars, the old man is loyal to his ox and the back-breaking traditional work the animal represents. And when his wife and children continually pressure him to sell his old friend, he adamantly refuses, caring for the beast even when his own physical setbacks make the tasks seem impossible.
Beautifully and contemplatively shot, “Old Partner” generally avoids the anthropomorphizing that similar stories exploit. The old man is clear about the ox’s role in his life: a worker and provider. And the camera doesn’t flinch when the man treats the ox poorly, hitting it over the head with a stick when it frustrates him. While there are a few exceptions (the camera zeroing in on the ox’s eye, shedding tears after supposed humiliation at the cattle show) this view of the friendship between the two seems exceptionally sincere. Forcing the ox to go to work every day is anything but cruel, as the old man equates work – extremely hard work – with his own usefulness in life. He is merely providing his ox with that same opportunity to feel needed and productive.
As a story, “Old Partner” is a simple and satisfying one. As a film, there is room for improvement. There is an overall flashback structure that comes off as very cheesy when paired with such a straightforward subject. The music never quite fits, as it swells and invades at moments when the man and his friend might be better left in silence. It makes sense that first-time documentary director Chung-ryoul Lee has been working in television for 10 years, where structures and music must be a little more obvious. That being said, for every flaw in the film, there is an element that is equally impressive. While the sound mixing isn’t perfect, there is also the constant toll of the bell tied around the old ox’s neck, providing relief from the overwhelming sounds of nature.
There is so much to love about this film. Vegans, rampant meat-eaters, dog owners and dogcatchers alike can all appreciate such a stable love story.