“My Love, Don’t Cross That River” – 2015 NYAFF Review


The Interstellar Love Boogie Funkathon: A Retrospective

(Warning: This review contains spoilers)

In its native country of South Korea, “My Love, Don’t Cross That River” (님아, 그강을건너지마오) was a sensation, quickly becoming the highest-grossing Korean documentary and independent Korean film of all time. The movie fared so well, it knocked “Interstellar” off of the top spot in the box office. And while I’m not sure how well-received the overlong, convoluted, and aggressively grimdark films of Christopher Nolan are in the Korean peninsula, I must say that I would gladly choose this documentary over such notable dreck as “Inception,” “Insomnia” and The Expendables franchise (which I assume Mr. Nolan dreams he directed in his own little inception world).

Spoiler #1: Christopher Nolan is a chump.

As the Invisible Hand of Capitalism dictates, box office receipts are an obvious metric toward a community’s chosen values.  In this case, South Korea — in the year of our Lord, two-thousand fourteen — valued a little documentary which explores the persistence of love on our planet through infinite planes of time and tradition, rather than the expensive science fiction trainwreck that inexplicably features a planet made of love (or whatever complicated mess that passes for deep insight by the director of the Saw franchise in a deeper layer of his own inception dream).

For context, as of the time of this writing, the current top-selling movie at the box office is “Jurassic World,” beating out the wonderful — if flawed — “Inside Out,” and proving once again that humanity’s relationship with velociraptors is more valuable than a child struggling with her emotions in a time of personal crisis. Luckily, “Jurassic World” doesn’t have Leonardo DiCaprio proving and Ellen Page taking up an hour’s worth of screen time with ridiculous exposition about “dream-shaping” or some such nonsense.

Spoiler #2: “Inception” is still a piece of shit movie.

The most exquisite aspect of “My Love, Don’t Cross That River” is how simple the narrative is. The film is a slice of life for an elderly couple, Jo Byeong-Man and Kang Kye-Yeol, who have been married for 76 years. Jo is 98 years old; his wife is 89. Even after all this time, they love each other very much, and their bond is infectious onscreen. We see their playful banter throughout the day, bickering and teasing one another with lighthearted gestures: One rakes the leaves, the other plays with the pile; a snowball fight ensues as they work outside during the first snow; Jo sings to Kang at her request while they walk at night.

Spoiler #3: Love the one you’re with. Doo-doo doo doo doo-doo do-do. Doo-doo-doo. Doo.

Though this married couple — and marriage itself, really — is the subject of the documentary, very little is said about the couple’s past. We get a few details, mostly through Kang, who is the chattier of the two. The couple married when she was 14, though Jo, who is nine years her senior, waited until she was older to consummate their marriage. Jo and Kang were poor for much of their life, and Kang gave birth to 12 children, though only six are still alive.

That’s about the extent of our knowledge of these people’s history, a narrative element which works wonders for the movie. The film is not concerned very much with where Jo and Kang came from, but rather who they are now, as well as where they’re going. This immediacy is ultimately the film’s prevailing theme. At this point in their lives, Jo and Kang are happy, and we see them as such. They play with each other, they visit their family, they seek out adventure, they dance to ridiculous K-pop. We know they had a history, but we don’t need to know the details because we know where they are right now, and that’s the important part.

Spoiler #4: Your loved ones will die one day.

Despite their current happiness, Jo and Kang understand the inevitable. They are not spring chickens, particularly Jo, who is fast approaching his 100th birthday. Neither Jo nor Kang shy away from the fact that they will die, and most likely soon. Kang is particularly aware of this reality, and spends a number of (poignant) moments reflecting on that fact. The film gives us plenty of other indiciations of the couple’s fate as well. For instance, even while playing with his wife, a continual cough creeps into Jo’s throat. Kang remarks upon his weakened state. As the film progresses, we become more and more aware of this fact until it reaches the point where we’re not surprised by the ultimate outcome.

Spoiler #5: Your family will disappoint you.

If the film has one flaw, it’s when it draws upon Jo and Kang’s world outside of their quiet mountain home. We know they have a half-dozen children and Kang tells the camera that she lost some at tragic ages (including a six-year-old child). We know that the couple loves their children and the feeling is reciprocated, but their children do very little for giving us any insights into their marriage. We see the family at New Year’s, cheerful and celebratory. We see a disastrous family outing for Kang’s 89th birthday party, which results in open, drunken arguments between siblings about who takes care of their parents more. But none of these scenes does anything to reflect on Jo and Kang as people, except that their children feel burdened by them (or so the implication goes).

Still, this is a minor flaw in an otherwise stellar movie. And surprisingly, the scenes in which Jo and Kang reflect on their dead children are some of the most powerful of the film.

Spoiler #6: You are going to die one day.

One of the film’s core questions comes directly from its subject matter (Kang, in this case): Who will remember you when you die? For Jo and Kang, this is an inevitability, measured in days and weeks rather than years. As Kang implies, they have experienced enough death in their lives, and though they don’t speak much of it, the specter of their dead children looms over them. Kang and Jo still want to remember, but who will remember once they’re gone? Who will remember Jo when Kang is gone, and vice versa?

The film does not attempt to answer those questions. Its final scene — of Kang crying out this very question to the vast, empty snow-covered mountainside — is at once poignant and heart-wrenching, a drastic difference from the cheery playfulness of the film’s beginning. But, in the miracle of cinema, she has her answer: We will. By virtue of watching this film, we will remember their story, and it is certainly a memorable one. We can only hope that that will be enough for this wonderful, lovely couple.

“My Love, Don’t Cross That River” screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Sun., June 28, at 9:15 p.m. as part of the 2015 New York Asian Film Festival.  For ticket information, go to filmlinc.com.