My Love, Don’t Cross That River (님아, 그 강을 건너지 마오) – ★★★☆☆

My Love, Don't Cross That River (님아, 그 강을 건너지 마오)

My Love, Don’t Cross That River (님아, 그 강을 건너지 마오)

At the end of 2014, Korean cinema witnessed an astonishing feat – documentary My Love, Don’t Cross That River (님아, 그 강을 건너지 마오) shattered the record to become the most successful Korean independent film in history. The surprise came largely from the initial humble opening. Premiering at the DMZ Documentary Film Festival in September, the film was finally released on November 27th against Hollywood heavyweights Interstellar, The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay Part 1 and Fury on a paltry 186 screens. Yet the fervent positive word of mouth that quickly surrounded My Love generated interest on such a scale that the documentary acquired a place in the top ten for the entire winter period, culminating in an incredible haul of over 4.7 million admissions and 34.3 million won. Compared to previous record holder Old Partner’s 17.5 million won take, the magnitude of My Love’s success is impossible to ignore.

98 year old Byeong-man and 89 year old Gye-yeol are inseparable even after 76 years of marriage

98 year old Byeong-man and 89 year old Gye-yeol are inseparable even after 76 years of marriage

My Love, Don’t Cross That River is an incredibly charismatic documentary by director Jin Mo-young (진모영), with it’s deceptively simple structure and strong emotional resonance clearly the reasoning behind how the film struck a chord with audiences during it’s impressive theatrical run. Yet while the documentary is sweet, poignant, and in many ways acutely romantic, My Love’s success is also somewhat puzzling.

My Love affectionately depicts the final years of the relationship between 98 year old Jo Byeong-nam and 89 year old Kang Gye-yeol who, after 76 years of marriage, still behave as newlyweds. When the couple go out, they always sport matching hanbok. When chores are undertaken, they jokingly play tricks on each other. When they settle down for the night, they fall asleep holding hands. The elderly couple are unspeakably endearing and are a real joy to watch as they cheerfully continue their countryside existence, despite the hardships old age brings. Their devotion is palpable, displayed through loving glances, body language and cute moments that consistently prove to be heartwarming. Combined with the photogenic backdrop of the picturesque countryside, My Love is visually as well as emotionally stimulating and is quite the moving tale.

The endearing couple play with flowers in Spring

The endearing couple play with flowers in Spring

Amongst such cheerful scenes however is the occasional sense of contrivance, which chiefly appears due to the camerawork. Byeong-man is a loveable rascal and likes to play tricks on his wife, yet as the camera quickly tracks around the couple to capture his pranks, as well as rather obvious editing cuts that capture that action from another angle, it feels as if the couple are being asked to perform for the camera which tends to undermine the purpose of the documentary. Luckily such moments aren’t frequent, and the film quickly corrects itself once the focus shifts back to more natural, authentic situations.

The simplicity of My Love is very appealing as the daily lives and the indomitable spirits of the elderly couple are documented, yet there is also a enormous amount of unexplored potential just begging to be uncovered, which unfortunately never achieves fruition. Aside from two wonderfully illuminating conversations in which Gye-yeol discusses how she and Byeong-man first met and married, as well as the amount of children they conceived, the film doesn’t really delve into their undoubtedly fascinating history to give audiences a sense of who they are. Hints to the tremendous amount of experience the couple have endured are alluded to at various junctures, however director Jin instead chooses to focus on the here and now which results in a romantic, poignant, emotionally resonating tale, albeit one that could have benefited from greater depth.

The indomitable spiritis of Byeong-man and Gye-yeol are heartwarming

The indomitable spiritis of Byeong-man and Gye-yeol are heartwarming

Verdict:

My Love, Don’t Cross That River is a record-breaking triumph for the independent sector as the most successful non-commercial film in Korean cinema history. Director Jin Mo-young’s endearing documentary about the charismatic relationship of elderly couple Byeong-man and Gye-yeol is wonderfully heartwarming and romantic as they act like newlyweds despite their ages. However My Love‘s occasional contrivances and unexplored potential stop audiences from truly knowing the couple, resulting in a simple yet emotionally resonant tale.

★★★☆☆

Reviews
The 5th DMZ Docs Film Festival

DMZ Docs: The 5th DMZ Korean International Documentary Film Festival

The 5th DMZ Docs Film Festival

The 5th DMZ Docs Film Festival

The 5th DMZ Korean International Documentary Film Festival – or DMZ Docs for short – is due to commence this Thursday the 17th of October and will run through to Wednesday the 23rd.

While the opening ceremony will take place at the DMZ as usual, the rest of the festival has been moved to Lotte Cinema in La Festa, next to Jeongbalsan Station, Ilsan.

DMZ Docs will feature 119 films from 38 countries during its run, all of which are divided within various programs bringing focus to social issues from around the world. There are three competition categories – International, Korean, and Youth – while the non-competition arena includes sections such as Global Vision, Docs For All! and Masters respectively.

Opening the 2013 installment of DMZ Docs will be Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신) by director Park Chan-kyong (박찬경), who has made quite a reputation for himself helming films such as Night Fishing (파란만장) and Day Trip (청출어람) alongside his brother Park Chan-wook.

For the official DMZ Docs festival trailer, as well as information on opening film Manshin, please see below.

Opening Film

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신)

Director Park Chan-kyong explores the life of shaman Kim Geun-hwa in Manshin: Ten Thousand Spirits (만신). Ever since the end of the Korean War, Korean culture has had a tumultuous relationship with the past and the present. In order to develop and establish the country as an economic powerhouse,  traditions have often been swept aside in the ferocious adoption of capitalist ideology – shamanism included. Despite such oppression, shaman Kim has established herself as one of the country’s leading figures in the arena, earning the title of National Shaman. The film stars actresses Kim Sae-ron, Ryoo Hyoun-Kyoung, and Moon So-ri in the role of shaman Kim as the autobiographical story presents her complex and traumatic life.

For the full listing of all the programs and films due to take place at DMZ Docs, please visit the official website here.

Festival News Korean Festivals 2013