(2014) Documentary (Film Movement) Byeong-man Jo, Gye-Yeol Kang, Doh-yeong Jo, Kaum-yeo Hyun, Daeh-yeong Jo, Bong-nam Kim, Keum-ja Jo, Sang-hyeong Jo, Ho-soon Cheon, Myeong-ja Jo, Myung-kyu Eom, Soo-yeong Jo, Yeong-whan Song, Seong-baek Jo, Seong-do Jo, Myeong-wha Jo, Seong-eun Jo, Soo-ah Kim. Directed by Mo-Young Jin
Seneca once wrote that “life, if well lived, is long enough.” The truth is that a life well lived need not be an extraordinary one. It need not be world-changing. Sometimes, a simple life is the most well lived life of all.
Byeong-man Jo and Gye-Yeol Kang have been married for 75 years, give or take when this documentary was filmed. He was pushing the century mark, she was turning 90. The two “100-year-old lovebirds” as they are described, live in a rural village in the Gangwon Province of South Korea in a small but cozy home. They gather firewood for heat during the fall to prepare for the winter; they rake leaves from their doorstep. They care for their dogs and they cook rice in an electric rice cooker. They go on picnics with their local senior center. He sings songs for her and the two do traditional Korean dances.
They wear clothes in matching colors and they are almost always touching. He can’t sleep if he isn’t touching her. They cuddle and their love for each other is palpable, so true and quiet that it you can’t help but smile. As you watch them assist each other with their chores, it’s not just like seeing your own grandparents but much-beloved ones. You can’t help but love them both.
Filmmaker Mo-young Jin followed the couple for 15 months starting in 2012 through 2013, watching the changing of the seasons through their eyes. Both of them are aware that their time on this Earth is winding down but it becomes much more real when one of them develops health problems. This leads to anguish in the other, knowing that they will have to carry on without someone who has been right by their side for three quarters of a century.
This is a beautiful movie in every sense of the spectrum. The emotional core of the movie is the love between Kang and Jo, and that emotion is so obvious that you get caught up in it. Those who have someone special in their lives will be reminded of them; those that don’t will long for someone like that. I jotted down in my notes as I watched my screener that “this is what growing old together is supposed to be” and that’s exactly the case. It’s what all of us dream of when we find someone we want to spend the rest of our lives with. This is what it looks like.
All the senses are excited, from the achingly beautiful score by Min-woo Jeong to the often breathtaking cinematography of Jin. There are some sad moments, like an argument that breaks out between two of their six surviving children (six others were lost to the measles in childhood) on Kang’s birthday, causing her to break into tears until a grandchild comforts her. There are some cute moments, as when one of their dogs has a litter of some of the cutest puppies you’ll ever see. They have two dogs – Kiddo, who has the puppies, and Freebie who they paid nothing for. Jo further endeared himself to me by being a dog person, and clearly he has a deep connection with our canine friends.
This is a movie that reminds us that the things in life that are most important are those we love. It is a movie that stands as a testament to the endurance of that love. There is nothing loud or cantankerous about this movie; it washes over you like a gentle wave, guiding you to a shore where loved ones await. You will cry a lot during this film – often tears of joy, but certainly tears of catharsis. This movie will make you feel.
Some people don’t like that. I read in a couple of reviews accusations that the movie was staged, that the couple were too perfect to be real. I don’t know – there’s no concrete evidence other than a reviewer’s suspicions. Me, if I were going to accuse a documentarian of staging scenes for the camera, I’d want to have a little more evidence before throwing opinions around as if they are facts. I personally think that some reviewers don’t like to feel deep emotions during a movie, so they find ways to dis a film that makes them feel. Of course, I have no evidence that it’s true in these specific cases, but I have my suspicions.
That bad juju aside, I have to confess that I didn’t just cry watching this movie; I bawled. I was a blubbering, puddle of goo in front of my laptop, leaving a puddle of salty tears on my keyboard. I’m quite frankly surprised I didn’t short out my laptop. But thinking about this film makes me misty again. It reminds me of the good things that I have in my life and the good things to look forward to. It reminds me that it is the little things, the simple things that are important. It also reminds me that if you have somebody who loves you, even if you have no money at all you’re still wealthier than Donald Trump will ever be. This is the movie to beat for the best film of 2016 as far as I’m concerned.
REASONS TO GO: Renews your hope for humanity. The beautiful score enhances the entire film. Revels in the simplicity of life. Gorgeous cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find it too emotional and low-key for their tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for family viewing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is the most successful independently released feature in South Korea to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Message From Hiroshima
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: The Lobster