Jin Mo-young’s My Love, Don’t Cross That River (님아, 그 강을 건너지 마오) is one of the most affecting documentaries to have hit the festival circuit this year. A wholly endearing look at a lifelong romance, the film smashed box office records in its native South Korea and was warmly received at the Sydney Film Festival earlier this year, where we reviewed the film. In the lead-up to the film’s screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, we were able to speak to the director about the aim and process of his film. Due to time constraints and issues of translation, this interview was conducted entirely via email correspondence.
The most widely-circulated piece of trivia on My Love, Don’t Cross That River prior to its screening at the Sydney Film Festival seemed to me to be the wild success it has achieved in South Korea, becoming one of the country’s most successful independent films, and most successful documentaries. How do you explain the amazing box office figures for a small, reflective film about an elderly couple in a market centred on high-concept pieces?
No one expected or hoped for such big numbers. So the response from audiences was a huge surprise to everybody. When I started shooting, I just wanted to find out the secret of their love. But, as time went on, I could see many more facets to their lives, and, I guess, because of this, audiences enjoyed the film from various viewpoints – married or not married, male or female, young or old, as a son or daughter, mother or father, and so on. And, to all of them, this couple proved that eternal love still exists in this world.
Where does the balance lie for a piece like this, aimed so squarely at the festival circuit? Are there any compromises you felt you made in preparing the film as an independent product but also seeing its potential wide appeal?
I didn’t really think about its festival appeal. I am not that clever, unfortunately. I just believed that a true love story is universal regardless of country, race, gender, religion, etc.
I read that the couple at the heart of the film were initially documented as part of a TV program. What was it that made you feel there was more to explore in their story?
I watched the TV documentary on them [titled Grey-Haired Lovers, it screened on KBS] in 2012 (there were five 30-minute episodes), and it was a big shock to me that they had been able to have such a loving life together for so long. The TV documentary was really beautiful and well made, but I was sure there would be something more to their story. So, I visited the couple the very next day and started to look for the ‘secret’ of their love.
What were the challenges inherent in working with elderly people? It’s clear that you wanted to highlight the exuberance, and even youthfulness, of these people well over 80 or 90, but there must have been times where you needed to make concessions to their age.
I stayed with them as a friend, and in a few months, we became so close that I thought of them as my parents and they also treated me just like they would their own son. They are old, and their everyday life is a routine, just like any other old folks living in the countryside. But I’d never make them do something for the film – I just looked, waited, and shot.
There were a lot of things going in the film beyond the basic scenario of Jo Byeong-man and Kang Kye-yeol’s marriage. Amongst the threads dealing with family, the passage of time, love, death, and so on, was there a key issue for you – a real heart of the film?
They showed me that great love is just like a great mountain, made of billions of specks of tiny dust. It can never collapse or be destroyed, and stays always as it is.
Another aspect of the film’s style which seems to move away from typical documentary filmmaking is the real lack of narrative contextualisation – the couple’s names aren’t mentioned during the film itself, and there isn’t any narration, intertitles, or captioning. Was this sparseness an important part of what you were trying to achieve?
For 15 months I shared my life with them as a friend, not only as a filmmaker. I wanted viewers of the film to also feel as I did. Fortunately, we had 400 hours of footage, which was enough to be edited into 86 minutes of film without any need for an intervention of narration or captioning. Nothing needed to be explained, and the image and sound we had could deliver everything that I would have liked to deliver to the audience. That doesn’t mean that editing was easy, though. It took nine months.
Related to that sense of rural naturalism, I suppose, are all of the moments of traditionalism which we see in both central characters – in their dress, food, lifestyle, and so on. Is the film also meant as a kind of elegy for a way of life, or intended to evoke anything you feel is important about rural Korean culture?
Nothing was intended. They were already a famous couple because of the previous TV documentary and their colorful dress. I just aimed to focus on their story in the moment, to give us a little glance at the secret of their love. Their lifestyle, which maybe looks unique to foreign audiences, just comes together with these small moments.
There are also some moments which feel overtly spiritual, particular once illness and death begin to become major parts of the story. Were there any religious aspects of the scenario which you wanted the film to explore?
It’s true that many Koreans traditionally believe in the idea of an afterlife, and she is one of them. Every human gets sick and dies, and people fall into despair. Whether or not I believe in it, whether it exists or not, it was really impressive to watch as she truly prepared not only for the death of her husband but also for eternal love and life with him. She has no doubt about it at all.
Moving forward from the success of My Love, I’ve read that your next film will deal with the lives of defectors from North Korea – which seems like a huge change in scope from the intimacy of this film. What do you feel you can bring to that kind of more political subject matter?
There are always struggles in our lives. In this respect, everything is political. But, I will not deal with the struggles between the South and North Korean governments. This film will be a portrait of our society seen through the eyes of a defector from North Korea, who is a stranger in the South. I will watch them, wait and capture their moments of struggle. In this sense, it is not that different from what I worked on with My Love.
My Love, Don’t Cross That River screens at Melbourne International Film Festival on July 31st and August 2nd. Tickets for either session can be purchased here.