The saddest image in any documentary this year opens and closes Mo-young Jin’s “My Love, Don’t Cross That River.”
It is a gentle winter scene of a clearing in the woods. Snow rimes the branches and covers the ground, creating a lacework of white. In the corner sits a tiny figure, a pale spot of yellow. An old person, weeping like a child, disconsolately.
For 15 months Jin filmed Byong-man Jo, 98, and Gye-Yeul Kang, 89, husband and wife since 1938, who live in a mountain village in Hoengseong County, South Korea. Jin masterfully reduces that sprawl of time to 86 minutes, cut with such fluidity and subtlety that it seems like experience itself: a flow in which banal moments prove in the next shot to be poignant, and others open into epiphanies of tragedy and joy.
At first the pair seem like they might be overly adorable. They wear matching clothes — brightly colored pantaloons, blouses, and robes. They rake the leaves in the yard, and throw handfuls of them at each other, giggling. When she goes to the outhouse, she insists he wait outside for her — singing. She comes out and says that he is the best singer in the world, which he clearly isn’t.
But it takes only a little while to realize this is all genuine. They are like one soul, inseparable, forever rapt in first love. Their rough habitation, surrounded by flowers and brooks and shared by two small dogs, is an earthly paradise.
Like all things of this world, their paradise is subject to the inexorability of time. Though they retain youthful beauty beneath gnarled surfaces, both have coughs and aches and pains and failing senses. Byong-man laments his lost strength as he struggles carrying the huge bundle of sticks he and Gye-Yeul gather for firewood.
The traumas of their long lives do not seem to have left any wounds. Gye-Yeul was 14 when they married; and, as is revealed in their shared reminisces and in the rare voice-overs, Byong-man had to work hard for her family without pay. They were shy at first, but ended up with 12 children, six of whom died at a very young age — in war, from illness and other misfortunes.
Those who survived come with their children and grandchildren to visit on special occasions. Their modern clothes seem crass next to the rich fabrics worn by Byong-man and Gye-Yeul. Their manners are crass, too. At Gye-Yeul’s birthday party, two of the children argue violently about who has sacrificed the most for their parents. Seen in close-up, Byong-man’s face is frozen in horror.
Almost invariably, films about old age succumb to sentimentality, condescension, crude comedy, or grotesquerie. Jin’s documentary does not; it shares the sublimity of two bonded lives lived to the fullest, undefeated by time or death.
“My Love, Don’t Cross that River” screens at the Museum of Fine Arts Aug. 18-27.