If you thought you’d never see a more devastating documentary than Dear Zachary, you were wrong. That famous film is pretty much guaranteed to leave a mess out of anyone who watches it - it’s not so much a documentary as grief itself converted into film, a heartbreaking gut-punch of an experience - but My Love, Don’t Cross That River may be even more intense.
You know you’re in for it from the very first shot, which fades in on an absolutely stunning winter wonderland, the first of many shots that just amaze you with their beauty. There’s a little old lady sitting on the left side of the screen and you’re taken in by the almost fairytale look of the setting as snow gently falls... and then you’ll realize that the lady isn’t just sitting there, she’s weeping. More than that she’s bawling, the kind of sound that only comes from experiencing more pain than you could possibly imagine. And then you realize she’s sitting in front of a grave.
From there, we go back in time.
You’re introduced to Jo Byung-Man and Kang Kyae-Yual, who are perhaps the cutest old couple you’ve ever seen. Kang is 89 and Jo is pushing 100, but you’d never guess it from their demeanor. Jo laments not being as strong as he once was and finds himself winded collecting wood to heat their little country home, but he also doesn’t hesitate to fool around. The camera is constantly catching him throwing water at his wife, dumping leaves on her head, just messing around until they collapse in wheezing, bent-back laughter.
They wear traditional Korean garb and match their clothes together, walking slowly around the rural landscape, their bright pink and yellow outfits bringing life to the drab surroundings. They forage for food and cook for each other, and while they have numerous children and grandchildren living elsewhere, here they only have themselves.
Every night as Jo and Kang sleep together they hold hands, as they have for the 75 years they’ve been together.
And then Jo’s health takes a turn for the worse. He was always hard of hearing but now Kang has trouble getting him to answer her, and his wracking cough gets even more awful. It’s so painful it wakes him up at night, and the doctors tell them they don’t have any medicine that will help. Even as cheerful and amazing as Kang is, she starts to plan for the inevitable, burning his clothes so that he can have them when he goes wherever it is he’s going.
You know from the very first shot what’s to come but, of course, knowing our mortality doesn’t make it any easier to get through. This is a rough, rough film to sit through, and even now just thinking about it I can feel my eyes begin to ache, threatening to fill up. My Love, Don’t Cross That River will absolutely wreck you, and leave you feeling emotionally drained and almost bereaved yourself.
It’s hard not to think of the old people in your life as you watch it, especially if you knew some that have passed away. One of the hardest questions asked by Kang is that of who will love Jo when she dies? No one in the world knows Jo as well as Kang does, after all. What happens when not only he’s gone, but she is too?
This is about as universal an experience as you can capture, and that’s perhaps what makes this documentary so wonderful, even in its sadness. This is not a topic we usually touch, most of us going out of our way to avoid the discussion of the end of our lives. Old people are hidden from view and thought about as little as possible, and those who help them through the end of their lives generally don’t share that experience. I doubt we could ever get a documentary like this made in the West, either. People here seem to hold onto their private moments and would never open up and allow access to their raw emotions the way they seem to here. Of course, it’s likely less about Korean culture than it is just these two wonderful, loving people opening up.
I hate to keep comparing it to Dear Zachary but I can’t think of another movie that will wring the tears out of you as easily. The only difference here is that Dear Zachary is a better experience than it is a film. It’s one that everyone should watch but it’s incredibly manipulative. The same can’t be said about My Love, Don’t Cross That River, which is actually a great film on its own. There’s no overwrought musical cues or jarring cuts, no information hidden from the viewer to provide optimal shocks. They just lay out the story, punctuating some scenes with a thoughtful piano soundtrack, but mostly just letting the ambience (and people) speak for itself.
It’s also expertly composed, aided perhaps by the slowness of their subjects. It sounds mean but there’s no other way I can think of that they managed to get some of these shots, which are framed like no other documentary. It doesn’t hurt that these sweet old people are photogenic even through their (many, many) wrinkles.
Like Dear Zachary I will likely never watch My Love, Don’t Cross That River ever again, since I’m not sure I would ever put myself through the emotional wringer. I got everything I wanted to out of it and it will likely stay with me forever. That’s enough for me, and more than you can ask out of any film.