Octogenarian farmer Choi Won-kyun and his wife, Lee Sam-soon, have toiled for decades in the fields with their 40-year-old ox—possibly the oldest beast of burden in South Korea. This documentary chronicles the final year of their life together in a remote, hilly farmland whose splendor sharply contrasts with their humble peasant lifestyle. It’s a punishing routine that Choi and his ox, their bodies both breaking down, won’t relinquish, even as Lee urges their retirement. Her complaints may be incited by her hubby’s uncommon affection toward the animal; there’s even a shot of Choi brushing its hair as Lee glares at both.
Thanks to Old Partner’s nostalgic depiction of farm life, anthropomorphically charming lead animal and memorable HD scenery (which evokes traditional Korean painting), the film’s universal appeal is virtually ensured. But a conservative nationalist agenda can be detected in shots of a public demonstration against U.S.-imported beef and in the reverent depiction of a patriarch who insists on traditional farming practices, forgoing pesticides for fear of poisoning his ox. (If only he cared as much for his ailing wife!) At its best, the film adopts its subjects’ spartan demeanor, relying on wordless sequences that vividly depict the rhythms of farm labor; only director Lee Chung-ryoul’s awkward use of slo-mo and tinkling pianos betray any sense of sentimentality.