South Korea's most successful indie feature ever is a documentary about "100-year-old lovebirds."
A celebration of very longterm marital contentment, “My Love, Don’t Cross That River” portrays the blissful kinship of true soulmates in their nineties when we meet them — a juncture at which Death does not spare meeting them, either. Moyoung Jin’s documentary hit a sentimental sweet spot on home turf, becoming South Korea’s most successful independent theatrical feature (fictive or otherwise) ever. Cultural differences and less potent later progress are likely to make this undeniably charming vérité romance have a much smaller Stateside imprint as it rolls out in NYC cinemas June 17, and Greater Los Angeles ones the following week. But it should do very well as a home-formats item within Korean-American communities, perhaps even enjoying crossover traffic to ethnically unaffiliated senior markets, primarily via broadcast sales.
“100-year-old lovebirds” Byoungman Jo and Gyeyeul Chang are already somewhat famous for their devotional longevity when we first glimpse them after 75 years of marriage. They’re cute as kittens — and despite their advanced ages, nearly as playful, with a relationship that could hardly be more visibly still in the stages of “first love.” (We see them good-naturedly pranking one another with leaf, water and snow “fights,” amongst other hijinks outside their rural home.) They wed in the late 1930s, when he was an orphan hired to work in her parents’ smithery.
Decades later, children visit, some now grandparents themselves. But when the health of one twee elder declines, the other must figure out how to go on after the inseparable duo is separated.
“My Love” is charming, but not always convincing in equal measure. There’s a certain air of suspicious contrivance: Do the lead characters really always wear such pristine, loudly colored silks to do yard work and so forth? In that and other ways, they sometimes seem to playing up for the camera — or rather Jin seems to be semi-staging an idyll of long-shelf-life love high on adorability and low on conflict. The subjects (reportedly shot over 15 months’ course) appear magically oblivious to the presence of a film crew, without being the least bit senile. Like grandparents who put on a show of folksy sweetness when the youngsters show up — or like a lot of reality TV — “My Love” tugs at the emotions with a practiced grip.
At least in this case, those emotions tapped are sentimentally tender rather than gloating and cynical. It’s a sweet movie — just not not wholly a “documentary” to whose reality you’d necessarily trust your own grandmother when depositing her at the rest home. There, one would require a little less treacly salesmanship, and a little more verified fact-checking. It’s not that “My Love” feels inherently dubious; it’s that its execution is just a little too smiling-through-tears slick to be swallowed whole.