From its opening shot of a pair of bent-over septuagenarians agonizing their way up a flight of temple steps to its final glimpses of the withered duo resigning themselves to inevitable death, Old Partner unfolds as an uncomfortably voyeuristic study in peasant-class misery—also perseverance. But mostly director Lee Chung-ryoul seems interested in highlighting as many images of physical decay as he can pick out, a task that he has little difficulty accomplishing, given the woeful state of his subjects: the central pair of aging rice farmers desperately plying their trade in rural South Korea and their 40-year-old ox who matches his owners in decrepitude. As Choi Won-kyun drags his withered beast out to the paddies and his disapproving wife keeps up a relentless chorus of complaint (“This is all because I met the wrong man”), Lee’s camera compiles a catalogue of fixed-take details: Choi dragging the ox through a bog, the wrinkled sticks of the man’s legs up to their ankles in mud; the ox’s spine sticking up through his wasted, scale-plagued body; a slow-mo close-up of Choi’s mouth with all but two teeth missing. Eventually the man becomes ill, leading Lee to make some of his more questionable directorial choices, bringing in his camera for uncomfortably close looks at his withered legs, dirty hands, and, later, his yellowed feet as he lies in agony.
There’s something indelible—as well as foolish—in Choi’s stubborn insistence on going out every day to the paddies, despite illness, old age, and a separated toe, and one of Lee’s accomplishments is to capture the essential sadness of a man who knows only one way of life and is no longer physically able to adhere to it. In certain long-shot images of man and beast slowly making their way along the dirt roads, the director effects a measure of restrained gravity, forcing us to reflect on the 40-year relationship between owner and animal which allowed Choi to feed and raise nine children who, based on the evidence of a mid-film visit, seem to have achieved a lot more success than their parents. But even these laudable sequences are marred by the occasional intrusion of pensive piano tinkling which seems too calculated to wring pathos from the plight of the characters, as the whole project is by the nagging sense that what really interests Lee is in crafting prettified images of his central couple’s suffering. While there’s little doubt that this suffering is real, the film’s unrelenting presentation of raw misery not only shortchanges the fullness of the subjects’ experience, but with its hovering, pitch-perfect camera-eye, feels dangerously like an invasion.