Love is fragile. The rush of contemporary life allows little time to consider the playful kindnesses that sustain love.
The documentary, My Love, Don’t Cross That River, is a deceptively simple love story between Jo Byong-man (98) and his wife, Kang Gye-yeol (89). We are schooled in the basics of enduring love by observing the hardscrabble life of a South Korean couple married 76 years.
Living in a primitive cement and wood shack near the river, they shun modern conveniences. They choose to cook over fire and sleep on thin pads placed on a wood floor – even though a stove and bed are available.
They maintain an enviable happiness quotient by staying in the moment while toughing it out with gritty daily chores that would challenge more youthful couples. Pride and gratitude are constant companions whether cooking the evening meal or keeping their tiny space, immaculate.
Director, Writer, Cinematographer Jin Mo-young’s objective was to celebrate the couple by representing – without affectation – their life together. A sparse soundtrack and the absence of voice-over narration leaves us to fill in the blanks. Silence, therefore, becomes an important character for us to divine – as it is surely an important character in the lives of people who need not fill each moment with sound.
At the onset of filming it became clear that 98 year-old, Mr. Jo, was critically ill. This unexpected development strips the rest of the film bare but for events chronicling the couple’s march toward the inevitable.
Ms. Kang reveals she’s been with her husband since the age of 14. Particular homage is paid to his ability to resist suggesting intimacy until his wife was mature enough to accept him. Thus, the gift of a three year window of opportunity to learn the goodness of love built separate and apart from sex.
Both the emotional and physical expression of their relationship is made more poignant by the strength of their friendship. A childlike winter’s snowball fight or a teasingly tossed assemblage of autumn leaves feel like celebrations of their holy relationship.
Sons and daughters arrive en masse to provide an afternoon meal for their parents. Hit hard by their father’s illness, each child’s behavior predicts who will grieve well and who will not. Some needed more time to correct emotional trespasses against their father. Others, at peace, shed quiet tears of acceptance.
An argument between the two factions erupts during the meal. Astonished by the discordance, Mr. Jo and Ms. Kang, sit in stunned silence. The primal screams of inconsolable children overwhelm, as they struggle to comprehend the reality of separation soon to come.
Ms. Kang burns the clothes of her fatally ill husband when he is close to death, sending the vibrantly colored traditional dress of Korea, called Hanbok, to heaven. She frets he won’t differentiate between winter and summer outfits, but confident she’ll soon join him in the after-life.
Watching Ms. Kang grapple with the emotionally long walk away from her husband’s snowy grave site is disturbing. Like the love so easily shown during their lives together, she wears her grief for him on her sleeve.
What’s left is to explore the boundaries of our own love. Our own grief.
Spoiler alert: the couple’s innocent, genuine interactions could provide minor discomfort when contrasted with our more layered and complicated contemporary love.
The film was a recipient of numerous awards from film festivals around the globe and became the largest grossing Korean independent documentary of all time.
(Photography provide by Willian Justen de Vasconcellos)