The poetic realism that André Bazin favoured in his writing strikes me as the noblest aspiration cinema has as an art. Cinema’s value as a tool for politics or education is contentious, but it’s value as a means of expressing poetry is immeasurable. The best poetry enlivens the spirit, even as it tackles death or heartache. Great poetry wears the mask of simplicity and finds words to describe the impossible. My Love, Don’t Cross That River, a documentary about a Korean couple who have been together for 75 years, achieves cinema’s full potential as a medium of poetry.
In the mountain village of Hoengseong County, Gangwon Province in South Korea, an ageing couple make their home. Two little dogs are tied outside, and snow rests fresh on the ground. Ninety-eight-year-old Jo Byeong-man and 89-year-old Kang Kye-yeol are clearing a path, when Jo grabs a handful of snow and throws it at his wife, giggling like a school boy. The snow fight that proceeds is emblematic of the film’s first half, which is infused with incomparable joy and playfulness. In another moment, Jo sings as Kang is in the outhouse, she was too afraid to head into the darkness alone. Kang tells him, for the first time in the film, how beautiful his voice is. It seems that every time she hears Jo sing, it is like the first time.
Jo is nearly 100 years old and has a nasty cough. His sickness is untreatable due to his age, so the best he can hope for is rest. At night, Kang cares for her husband with patience. The lights remain on since Jo doesn’t let her turn them off at night — perhaps afraid of eternal darkness. They hold hands as they sleep, “He can’t sleep unless he’s touching me,” Kang says. Jo becomes progressively more ill, his cough intensifies and his body shrinks. There are moments, the only off-putting ones in the film, where the music swells a touch too much, overstating the obvious emotional resonance of their relationship and their impending loss. But this is a minor point in a grandiose portrait of love and loss.
In Korean culture, you burn the clothes of the deceased so that they may have something to wear in the afterlife. Kang buys six pairs of pajamas, one for each child she lost in her life: while they were alive, she never had the money to buy them anything so precious. Kang makes her husband promise, if he dies first, that he will make sure the clothes find their owners. As Jo is in his last days, Kang starts to burn his clothes too. There are too many for her to do all at once, and she doesn’t want him to go without them. Kang talks to a person off camera, worrying because her husband doesn’t know the difference between spring or winter clothes, and she wonders how he will manage without her in the afterlife.
The cyclical nature of love and life is at the heart of My Love, Don’t Cross That River. As one of the couple’s dogs passes away, the other gives birth to a litter of puppies. Birds are all around them, and Kang imagines being resurrected as a yellow oriole — the most beautiful of birds with the sweetest song. The film’s structure, similarly, emphasizes the cyclical nature of life by bookending the film with Kang’s mourning. Returning to the gravesite in the film’s final moments, Kang’s cries echo as some of the most pained I’ve ever heard in film or in life. Falling snow is among the most delicate sounds, and when juxtaposed with Kang crying, “Who will remember you? No one loves you like I do,” the moment comes across as heartening, painful and real. The unfettered reality hits hard. Life is too painful for us to be hurting each other, life is too short for us to let it be filled with hatred.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.