Director Jin Mo-young’s My Love, Don’t Cross That River depicts the encroaching death of a 98-year-old South Korean man, Jo Byeong-man, with an artlessness befitting the documentary’s one-track interest in human suffering as a mechanism for generating exploitative pathos. Jin uses the face of Jo’s 89-year-old wife, Kang Gye-yeol, for his monotonal canvas of sadness, as the woman progresses through a series of stories about her past that does little more than cause her traumatic heartache. The problem isn’t Kang’s prior hardships as a topic of discussion, but that Jin’s interest in her pain is so precious, as when Kang weeps while telling a story about how she couldn’t afford to buy long johns for her children when they were little.
Rather than anchor Kang’s pain with socio-economic commentary or render the confessional with a more sensitive attunement to the complexities of her anguish, Jin revels in it, as if the mere realization of human regret triggered by poverty were a revealing insight. The doc suggests the product of a filmmaker who saw Make Way for Tomorrow and Tokyo Story and thought their power lied in their recognition of impending death itself and not the peripheral, material conditions that encourage the disposal of elderly lives as soon as they become burdens upon their younger and more able-bodied children.
Jin floods his film with moments of quotidian behaviors, such as Jo and Kang making a pot of rice and taking a bath. In effect, Jin reduces them to children, fetishizing their wholly modest behaviors as cute manifestations of a pure form of human interaction. Lines from Kang like “The rice came out so well” and “It’s nice to be so clean, isn’t it?” reduce her humanity to a graspable simplicity, aligning her with a natural order that’s more animal than human. In fact, when Kang’s dog gives birth to a litter of puppies, Jin includes a line where Kang tells the dog: “You have three boys and three girls now, just like me.” As played here, Kang’s analogy is a bald metaphor for her status: She becomes a pet to play out Jin’s tritely conceived, ethnographic impulses.
The doc concludes with Kang on both knees, in the snow, wailing at having just buried her longtime companion. The camera is some 50 yards away, centered along the path of a dividing river, with Kang on the left side of the frame and the burial site on the right. The static shot’s compositional control suggests deliberate, painterly framing, while the audio track has seemingly been mixed to emphasize Kang’s unceasing sobs. Thus, a supposedly candid moment of a woman at her most broken, desperate, and completely at odds with where to turn next is milked for those sounds of despair.
Making matters worse, the scene conspicuously seems the product of a filmmaker who has extracted those cries (or, even worse, recorded them away from the scene on display) for maximal emotional impact on the viewer. If Jin’s borderline deplorable treatment of Kang weren’t damning enough, the prolonged scene ends with a cut to a title card and a sharp burst of orchestral music, offering the prior scene not in contemplation, but as a crescendo for My Love, Don’t Cross That River’s symphonic, death march.