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Originally published Thursday, February 25, 2010 at 3:01 PM

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Movie review

'Old Partner': Feel the pull of a profound friendship between man and ox

"Old Partner," by first-time documentarian Lee Chung-ryoul, is a soothing, affectionate portrait of an elderly South Korean farming couple and the 40-year-old ox that's been a mainstay in their lives for decades.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

'Old Partner,' a documentary directed by Lee Chung-ryoul. 77 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. In Korean with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum; see Page 15.

We never learn the ox's name, or even if he has one. All we know is that the title character of "Old Partner" is 40 years old and is believed to be the oldest beast of burden in all of South Korea. He's a local celebrity to the villagers, who routinely greet the ox as he pulls his master's cart (and his dozing master) at a glacial pace along the same dusty provincial roads he's traveled every day for decades.

The ox's owner, 79-year-old Choi Won-kyun, has tended his rice paddies since before the ox was born. He's formed a profound friendship with the reliable beast that has made it possible for Choi and his wife, Lee Sam-soon, to raise nine children in relative comfort. With a withered leg that forces him to work on all fours like his constant companion, Choi still prepares a special fodder for the animal, free of the pesticides he refuses to use (unlike his modernized neighbors) on his modest parcel of farmland.

You can't blame Choi's wife for thinking of the ox as a rival for her husband's affections, and you can't blame Choi (who is partially deaf) for ignoring her constant bickering. Also in her late 70s, the perpetually miserable Lee endlessly complains that "I married the wrong man," but the evidence suggests otherwise: There's still a deep, abiding love in this enduring union, and there's a palpable history of mutual devotion between the husband, wife and hardworking animal who've built their lives together.

First-time documentarian Lee Chung-ryoul dedicates "Old Partner" to the fading generation of rural Korean grandparents who represent a vanishing way of life. It's a sweet, affectionate dedication that reflects the director's reverence for his subjects. "Old Partner" may strike some as sentimental and repetitious, but it's only because Lee has matched his style to the material. His loving close-ups, leisurely pacing and soothing rural images pay intimate tribute to lives of hard labor and the simple, lasting rewards of tenacious dedication.

Jeff Shannon:

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