Some Thoughts on “Old Partner”

Matthew Blaisdell

Film Forum provides the following quote and review in its promotion for “Old Partner,” a film in a 1-week engagement at the theater (ending January 5th). (

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened,”
 (Anatole France).  “Mr. and Mrs. Lee, elderly peasants, eke out a living from their farm in a remote portion of South Korea, served by a 40-year-old ox who is their friend, their colleague, their lifeblood — and clearly Mrs. Lee’s (successful) competitor for her husband’s love and loyalty. OLD PARTNER is a gentle, poignant tale of man and beast, one that will be familiar to anyone who has ever cherished a pet; but here that love is magnified by the symbiotic nature of the relationship. Mr. Lee gathers special fodder for his ox and refuses to use insecticide for fear of poisoning him. Like THE STORY OF THE WEEPING CAMEL, this is a moving documentary of near-biblical dimensions.”

Thinking about this film in the context of animal issues reminds me of two related ideas: 1) the value of symbiosis involved in domestication; and 2) the great tension between sentimentality and hard legal/policy analysis. 

Like many Korean farmers of his generation (I would not refer to them as “peasants”; they certainly aren’t thought of that way in South Korea) Mr. Lee (who is 79 years old) and his wife inhabit a very modest dwelling erected on one the small mountains that comprise most of the peninsula’s landscape.  The soundscape is rich in cicadas and cowbells.  Mr. Lee works himself, his wife, and his ox to death.  Yet he possibly loves and cares for the ox the most of the three.

Indeed, much of the literally back-bending work he subjects them to is for the purpose of securing a rich, organic diet for the ox.  He refuses all chemicals (an extremely risky proposition for his crops) and machinery for the sake of maintaining these routines, which to him more closely resemble a labor of love.  (Mrs. Lee tells it very differently, and at times hilariously.)  He has put all nine children through school.  His doctor tells him that continuing in this fashion will quickly kill him.  Yet he knows no other satisfying way to live.  Scenes of him literally dragging himself across the rice fields feel like moments imagined in a Werner Herzog film.  He wants to die in the fields with the ox, and you feel like at any moment his wish will be granted.

This is his “good son,” the best and most loved of his children, parked in a lot in between cars during a downpour.  He utterly refuses to sell the animals, to the tremendous consternation of all, though not because he thinks they will be mistreated.  No, it is because these beasts of burden must go together.  Domestication has ensured the survival of oxen as well as chickens, but what a life.  However one feels the symbiosis, it can be quite affecting.

Which brings me to sentimentality.  I usually like to think I’ve erected a “Chinese wall” between the sentimentality and advocacy.  I envision sentimentality for an object as different than passion for an issue in that the appearance of sentimentality may “color” your arguments in the eyes of others, or misdirect your analysis by elevating your feelings for the object over the success of your advocacy.

Yet inspiring sentiment in the public is something quite different.  Everyone manipulates emotion, because it drives our decision-making processes at least as much as reason.  And that’s not entirely wrong.  We should feel strongly about certain things, and we should want others to feel strongly too.  One’s attitude towards animals changes after she has loved an animal.  What I’m thinking about is reminding ourselves of the value of stimulating affection, awe, and appreciation in others.

I recall reading an article in my bible, The Economist, criticizing as short-sighted the actions of activists who opposed the further renovation of residential developments in park areas.  The activists sought to limit construction and human footprint in the area generally.  From what I recall, the author felt that they were missing the larger point, and suggested that perhaps one reason that popular support for conservation and environmental measures generally is stronger in several other developed countries than it is in the U.S. is that Americans, in our lust for development and expansion, have lost our connection to nature, and that the way to rebuild that connection is to encourage people to get back into nature, even if it means bigger and fancier lodgings.  Sealing nature off from the public may represent a small benefit to that particular tract of land, but inhibits the cause more generally because the more abstract and less tangible an object becomes, the easier it is to allow it to vanish.

Most of us know someone, if not ourselves, who can trace her development as an advocate to a singular event/relationship that inspired a sense of awe or affection.  Our affection for an object affects our beliefs about the object, and inspires our advocacy.  My experience advocating for immigrants while in law school hammered this point home; people who know, live and work with immigrants generally have markedly different views on the topic than those who do not.  Hunters are often among the most effective conservationists.  I remember some years ago a friend lectured me on laundry detergent and other household products based on what he’d learned from Pheasants Forever (a popular outfit in Minnesota).

Eco-lodges build this concept into their entire plan.  Not only is the income used for protection and expansion, but they also drill home the message of conservation to visitors.  Zoos and aquariums entail more complicated arguments both for and against, but one of the strongest arguments ‘for’ would have to be that, if you want people to care about animals, it helps to introduce them to these animals.  It is one thing to read about them; it is quite another to see them up close.  Perhaps we should focus on advocating for better zoos or parks, rather than advocating for doing them away with them altogether.  Focus on an approach that maximizes “affection” rather than “restriction.”

From January 6 – January 19, Film Forum will be playing “Sweetgrass,” a further exploration of our relationship with domesticated animals.

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