Before Friday night’s screening of the South Korean documentary film My Love, Don’t Cross That River, Carbon Arc programmer Kendra Barnes announced to the audience, “I chose this film because I wanted to make you cry.” Tissues were efficiently distributed throughout the crowd, in preparation for the waterworks which were sure to follow, and the film began. The first shot is of a gorgeous winter landscape, shimmering white snow hanging from tree branches, filmed beautifully by director Jin Mo-young, who doubled as the film’s director of photography. Dwarfed by this natural beauty is 89-year-old Kang Kye-yeol. Her tiny presence is difficult to locate in the shot, but the sound of her weeping is overwhelming. With this as the opening scene of the film, Jin seems to be making an announcement similar to Kendra’s: “I made this film because I wanted to make you cry.”
Of course, it would be reductive to claim that this is the only intent that the filmmaker had. The film is a portrait of a lifelong love, celebrating the 76-year marriage of Kang to the 98-year-old Jo Byeong-man, whose death, it will soon become clear, is the cause of her tears. If films like Gone Girl and Force Majeure indicate a trend of films which depict marriage as a cold, suffocating institution of begrudging commitment, My Love, Don’t Cross That River is a powerful antidote to their cynicism. The cold image which opened the film is quickly washed away with scenes of the loving couple together, supporting each other with constant kind words. Despite their age, they display a spry playfulness, alternately throwing leaves and snow or splashing water at one another with laughter, even when Jo’s body falters with exhaustion. Amid their fun is also a warm protectiveness. He accompanies her to their bathroom when it is dark and she is scared, waiting outside the door and singing a song for her. She takes joy in preparing his meals, claiming that he has never said he did not like one, even though she can tell that the enthusiasm with which he consumes them is varied. It feels as though they may sometimes be play-acting for the camera, but to find the energy to even perform a spark after that much time together is something to be admired, and it never feels as though the spark itself is insincere. Darker moments in their life are revealed later in the film, but there do not appear to be any in their relationship itself. While watching the film I did the math in my head and realized that Kang would have been very, very young when they were first married, but soon after she even addressed this potentially discomfiting issue, saying that even after they were technically wed, Jo waited years to “make a move.” From the very beginning of their relationship it seems they thrived on this gentle caring and kindness.
The lack of cultural context given helps to keep the focus squarely on the love story at the heart of the film. It seemed to me that a Canadian or American filmmaker may have felt the urge to investigate the meaning of all of the Korean cultural practices which differ from their own; asides which would have done little to serve the story at hand. I am reluctant to apply the term “universal” to a film, especially when the subjects’ experience and perspectives are so evidently different from my own, and seemingly peculiar even within their own culture. And the relationship at hand here certainly is a peculiar one, presenting us with a couple of delightful outsiders. The couple are not exactly hermits, as they go to the hospital regularly and join a local seniors’ centre on outings, but they do live a fairly reclusive life. There do not seem to be any homes near theirs, and their only consistent company comes from a couple of dogs they keep as pets. They also wear matching traditional attire almost everyday, which none of the other people in the film do. The vibrant colours publicly display their unity and commitment to a style which has gone out of fashion. Even if the distinction here was not intended to be generational, I got the feeling Jin may have been trying to represent a longing for a romanticized lost way of life. However, while these people are distinct, the lessons and values taught by the film do have a relatively universal and timeless resonance. The couple’s story makes clear that the hardships of life do become easier with a shared kindness. While the form which it takes is of a particular kind in the film, the basic values of friendship, understanding, and fun which they display are broad enough to speak to most audiences.
Although the film opens and closes with the sad image of the widow weeping, the second time around we are situated to understand where Kang is. She has just finished burning Jo’s clothes after his death, under the traditional belief he will need them in the afterlife. The fire burns literally, but also symbolically: their passion burns through even the coldest seasons of life and beyond. Before the credits roll, Jin tags on a dedication to “Jo Byeong-man, the eternal lover of Kang Kye-yeol.” The implication that their love and tenderness towards each other extends beyond a lifetime into an eternity is enough to warm your heart, and bring on a shower of tears, both happy and sad. Quick, somebody grab me some tissues.
Make sure to get your tickets for the pair of documentaries we have screening at Carbon Arc this week! First up, screening at 7pm on Friday October 21st, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog turns his dry wit and boundless curiosity onto the vast subject of the internet in Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World. Then, we have a special screening on Saturday night at 7pm, of Fire at Sea, presented in partnership with the Italian Canadian Cultural Association. The film captures the lives of the people living on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, a frontline in the tragic European migrant crisis. It is the first documentary in history to win the prestigious Golden Bear top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, so you won’t want to miss it.