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Love hurts. The deep affection and familiarity of the Korean couple in Jin Mo-young’s debut, My Love, Don’t Cross That River, brings heart-shattering pain when their marriage of 76 years comes to an inevitable end. They loved and cherished until death parted them, and the anguish is palpable from the very first scene, a distant shot of the widow weeping.
The documentary (also curiously billed as a drama and romance) ends with this scene as well—nearly three full minutes of tears in the falling snow. And though it may sound as cold as that winter landscape, by then you’ll be itching for the credits to roll, thanks to manipulative editing and undoubted staging that makes this doc feel more like a Nicholas Sparks production.
Jin followed Jo Byeong-man and Kang Kye-yeol for 15 months, until Jo’s death at nearly 100 years old. (There’s a discrepancy between the ages given in various articles and the ones the couple claim in the film.) It isn’t clear at first, but Jin intersperses his footage of Jo’s sunnier days and his decline, marked by fragility and a relentless cough where once there was playfulness, humor, and enough strength to take care of the land outside their home along with his wife.
Now here comes the staging. How often do we need to see the couple throwing leaves at each other, then tossing snow at each other, then splashing each other in a stream? Well, the first instance is cute, but then all three occur before the film hits the 30-minute mark—longtime marriages may fall into repetition, but it’s not usually the equivalent of giving each other perpetual noogies like Jin makes it seem.
Afterward comes the Barbara Walters-style sit-down. “You used to be so strong, remember?” Kang asks Jo while they’re taking a breather from some work outdoors. “And now that you (aren’t), how does that make you feel?” There are more natural and charming scenes, such as Jo singing to Kang or her smiling as she watches him chow down on her cooking. They also have two dogs that Jo is especially fond of, and his tenderness for them is infectious, too. She calls him the Korean equivalent of “hubby.”
Then things get real. A screaming match among the couple’s children; the family’s tears as Jo nears the end. They make the elderly man comfortable at home when a hospital says that medicine would no longer help him—and then, there are puppies! One of the pair’s dogs gave birth, and what a better way to lift the mood of a reality turning too somber. Or, you know, not. Likewise, after Jo is gone, the next shot is not of his wife, his kids, or even a medic—it’s of the dog.
Jo and Kang seem like a couple impossible to dislike. But Jin managed to turn their story into a film that’s difficult to love.
My Love, Don’t Cross That River opens today at Angelika Pop-Up.