“The man of the house shouldn’t covet and touch what belongs to others even if he is starving to death” laments an old potter admonishing his well-meaning son but also commenting on the folly of his life. A melancholy tale of illusionary futures, Choi Ha-won’s The Old Potter (독짓는 늙은이, Dokjitneun Neulgeuni) is a deeply felt meditation on loneliness and regret as a wandering son finally comes “home” to look for himself in the ruins of his family which seems to have existed as briefly as a dream.
The young man (Kim Hee-ra), apparently from a nearby village, is a wandering soul struck by the familiar sight of traditional pots which he has not seen in some years seeing as he has just returned from the war. Stepping into a house he finds it not quite as empty as he thought and strikes up a conversation with an elderly gentleman (Heo Jang-gang) who invites him to stay the night among a small community of beggars congregating around a disused kiln. The old man tells him that he comes here every 15th day to spend time with a late friend of his, Song (Hwang Hae), to whom he seems to feel some sort of debt.
Back in the 1920s, Song, the old potter, joked that he was married to his pots, living a lonely life devoted to his craft. One winter he happened upon a young woman collapsed in the snow, rescuing her and nursing her back to health in his shack. The young woman, Ok-soo (Yoon Jeong-hee), does not exactly fall in love with him but is grateful and, it turns out, has nowhere else to go and so the pair marry. The potter becomes a father to a son, Dang-son, at the age of 61. For seven years, the family is perfectly happy. Old Song truly loves the young Ok-soo and takes good care of her. He is a kind man and patient father keen to pass on his skills to his young son.
And then, a strong and handsome young man arrives. He is is Sok-hyun (Nam Gung-won), Ok-soo’s first love for whom she left her family, heading off to look for him but fainting in the snow where she was rescued by Song. When Song’s friend made fun of him for washing Ok-soo’s clothes in a nearby stream and prompted him to ask her to stay, he said he’d let her go if that was what she chose, and to that extent he’s true to his word. Having overheard the couple talking and realised their past relationship, he says nothing but silently hopes that Ok-soo will choose to stay with them.
Ok-soo meanwhile is torn. Her old lover has returned, the man she’d been searching for, but he’s come at an inconvenient time when she is now a wife and a mother with a settled home. She is not unhappy with the potter who, though elderly, is kind and has always taken care of her and their son, but she’s drawn back towards passion and romance with Sok-hyun who is young and strong, able to split logs with a single blow. Song hears the sound of the axe echoing in his mind as a grim reminder that Sok-hyun is everything he is not – young and handsome and full of life. He can offer only the warmth of their home and the feeling of duty towards family as reasons for Ok-soo to stay, but knows in his heart that she will choose the love of her youth over the security they have built together.
Song’s late life happiness is shattered like one of his imperfect pots. He cautions his son that one should not covet things which belong to others as if blaming himself for daring to “borrow” Ok-soo all these years when she “belonged” to someone else. He gives Dang-son another pottery lesson which is really life philosophy, explaining that it’s fire that makes the pot, not the man. A man is made by the fires he endures, and perhaps, Song starts to think, he should give in and allow Dang-son to be adopted by a noble family so that he might live an easier life as a gentleman rather than struggle here with him with no real hope for the future seeing as all his pots are cracked.
Of course, as we already know, the sad young man who returned from the war is Dang-son, so perhaps Song’s choice did not buy him the easy life that he hoped it would. Meanwhile, the old man explains that Ok-soo later returned and bitterly regretted her choice, begging to be told where Dang-son had been taken, but the old man turned her away which is why he feels so guilty. “I deserve the severest punishment as a woman who deserted her husband and son” Ok-soo laments, having spent the last 20 years trying to atone for her decision to choose passion over her maternal responsibility. Song’s brief moment of happiness left him unable to return to his cold and lonely life as the master potter, his hopes shattered by life’s imperfections. Fire has shaped them all, but after it’s cooled all that remains is bitter regret for the frustrated desires of youth and a painful longing for forgiveness.
The Old Potter is available on English subtitled DVD courtesy of the Korean Film Archive in a set which also includes a bilingual booklet featuring an essay by director Choi Ha-won on the making of the film as well as writing by film critic Kim Jong-won. It is also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.