In modern life it"s often difficult to seriously entertain the idea that true love exists. We can try to fulfill that void with romantic fantasies but really, most of us are only one bad date away from being outright cynical. In times like these, many of us need some kind of clear hope that love is real. For those wavering in that faith, "My Love, Don"t Cross That River" is a testament to the concept of love. These two old people have survived war, death, general misery, and one of them now stands perilously close to death"s door. And yet still, they love each other.
If you"re looking for a deeper message that that, don"t expect one. "My Love, Don"t Cross That River" is a story of two relatively uncomplicated people living life just on the strength of their own uncomplicated measures. It"s often difficult to escape the feeling that these two are the product of a vastly different time period than we could possibly understand. Both Byeong-man and Gye-yeol typically wear traditional Korean clothing wherever they go- which is never that far, given that they live in a relatively isolated mountain area.
Director Jin Mo-young never bothers to try to explain any of this. I imagine that, having filmed this documentary for 15 months, there are probably all sorts of stories Byeong-man and Gye-yeol could tell about their past lives. Yet for reasons that are particularly obvious, instead the focus is almost entirely on the little things they do for each other in the present. Take the occassional snowball fight. Not a particularly thrilling exchange given how elderly the participants are, but that"s really not the point.
Even the main tragedy that haunts their lives never really haunts either Byeong-man or Gye-yeol personally. When the time comes to finally light the funeral pyre, Gye-yeol is clearly grief-stricken, but accepting. It"s obvious that Byeong-man and Gye-yeol have discussed what they wanted to do ahead of time- or maybe not. These two are so incredibly in-sync with one another it"s entirely possible that Gye-yeol just knew what Byeong-man would have wanted, intuitively.
Byeong-man didn"t really live the kind of life that warrants a serious reflective documentary, which is probably where most of the emotional power in "My Love, Don"t Cross That River" comes from. Rather than expecting us to feel empathy with powerful or amibitious people, director Jin Mo-young expects us to care and empathize with Byeong-man"s passing because his great achievement in life was to be a good man, as much as he could, to one woman.
Taken in this light the tremendous success this documentary has met at the Korean box office shouldn"t be surprising. "My Love, Don"t Cross That River" is the perfect distilled essence of romantic comedy that fictional films try and typically fail to achieve. It has that notion of permanence, of flow. That understanding that the river isn"t something we cross because we want to cross it, but because that level of change is inevitable. Still, Byeong-man and Gye-yeol shared 76 years together. That much deserves to be cherished for all its worth.
Review by William Schwartz
"My Love, Don"t Cross That River" is directed by Jin Mo-young.