'Old Partner' storms Korean boxoffice

Low-budget documentary breaks records with rural story

SEOUL -- Critics are calling it the biggest-ever indie sleeper in Korea. Lee Chung-ryoul's "Old Partner," a low-budget documentary about the friendship between an 80-year-old farmer and his 40-year-old ox, has broken out of the art house and is now sharing multiplex billing alongside the likes of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "Marley & Me."

The $134,500 film, which was featured at this year's Sundance Film Festival, opened quietly in seven arthouse theaters here in mid-January. Less than a month later, the film was screening in 100 nationwide theaters including major multiplex cinemas. (Watch the "Old Partner" trailer below.)

"Partner" topped most movie reservation sites here over the weekend, breaking a documentary boxoffice record by attracting more than 1 million filmgoers. It also became the first independent film ever to top the weekday boxoffice, according to the Korean Film Council.

"The fact the film depicts a family drama and nostalgia appealed to a lot of local audiences who were hungry for human dramas in difficult economic times like this," said Kwak Yong-soo, a representative for Indie Story, the film's distributor. "It was different from many independent films and documentaries we had seen before, and the sentiment was met with the right timing for the right audience."

Documentaries have never been a particularly successful genre in Korea. Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" held the previous boxoffice record when the film opened here in 2004. But overall, the market for independent cinema serves a small audience.

The success of "Partner" largely owes to older ticker-buyers who made up a significant portion of many Korean blockbusters in the past like "Taegukgi" and "Silmido." The film's publicity also got a boost when president Lee Myung-bak and his first lady made a rare trip to an art house theater earlier this month to see the film.

The move was seen as a political gesture to endorse a diligent lifestyle and a message of hope posed by the elderly farmer and his wife despite the hardship of rural life. The film's ideals were seen as a soothing encouragement in an increasingly competitive Korean society.

"The film was in a way very sentimental, but it was warm," said Kim So-hyang, a 28-year-old Web site designer who saw the film with her parents and other older members of her family. "For them, it's a story about their past that they no longer get, and for us, the film tells a forgotten story about our countryside."

Nostalgia is a recurring theme in difficult economic times here. During the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s, the Korean film "Father," based on a hit novel about a family that reconciles after a middle-aged father learns he is dying of cancer, touched a nerve with many Korean men faced with job layoffs and alienation from their family.

"The film touches on common sentiment in people who grew up with the generation of stubborn fathers who sacrificed for their children," said Shimokawa Masaharu, the Japanese organizer of a cross-cultural film festival in Beppu. "Normally, the dialogue you have after the screening deciphers whether the film was good or bad, and in that sense people will have a lot of stories to share about this film."

"Partner" director Lee, who described the ox as a reference to fatherhood in a past interview, explained that he had wanted to shoot a film about a Korean father since the 1997 crisis.

"It feels like we had staged a boxing game of a kid and a grown-up man, and all of a sudden the little guy had knocked down the big guy," he said in a Q&A last week in a downtown Seoul theater. "But I don't think the case advocates the overall condition of independent cinema in Korea."