When My Love, Don’t Cross That River was released in South Korea in 2014, it became the country’s biggest documentary ever and shoot to number 1, even when premiering alongside huge blockbusters. Maybe it’s because My Love, Don’t Cross That River has more heart, love, sweetness, and gut-wrenching sadness that most films even attempt, with this powerful look at a couple who have been married for over 75 years.
Byoung-man Jo and Gyeyeul Kang have been married since they were teenagers, but the affection they show for each other is that of a young love still blossoming. When they clear the snow from around their house, they have impromptu snow fights, Byoung-man will still bring his wife flowers and they both continue to laugh at each other’s jokes that they’ve surely heard hundreds of times before.
At almost 100, Byoung-man’s health is starting to wane, as their usual walks now are filled with breaks and he’s kept up at night by coughing bouts. Despite them both knowing that the end for either of them could be around the corner, they still find comfort in acting like young kids in love, as if nothing else matters.
Director Jin Mo-young doesn’t dig deep into this couple’s past, as we only get hints of their decades-long marriage. Gyeyeul Kang had 12 kids, with only 6 having survived, while the others have died through illness or war. Kang still regrets not being able to purchase long-johns for her children that have passed, and in one of the film’s most staggering moments, she finally purchases them to give to them in the next life. Mo-young introduces us to some of the surviving kids during Kang’s birthday, yet their petty squabbles only make clear why these two have relied just on each other for so long.
Mo-young reportedly had access to the couple for fifteen months of filming, and rarely does his cinema verite style feel intrusive or manipulative. At the beginning, Mo-young presents a moment of heartbreak that the film will end on, making My Love, Don’t Cross That River an inevitable ticking clock to loss. Yet when Mo-young later returns to that moment at the film’s end, it’s the only moment that feels calculated. He holds on a moment of grief for far too long, making the viewer suffer through the scene, rather than grieving alongside its subjects. It’s a rare misstep in a film that often knows when to get in and get out with its moments of brutal honesty.
Even though we don’t hear much of their past, that’s one of the many aspects that makes My Love, Don’t Cross That River so wonderful. At this point, all that matters is each other, and the love they have in every remaining moment these two have. My Love, Don’t Cross That River is a beautiful glimpse at lifelong love that will rip your heart out, and make you smile and long for the type of love these two share, often within seconds of each other.