February 20, 2009 / 8:29 AM / 10 years ago

Pensioners and their ox plough South Korea box office

SEOUL (Reuters Life!) - A South Korean documentary about a grumpy grandmother, a blunt grandfather and their loyal ox has become a surprise box office hit, luring audiences with its portrayal of a way of life fading fast in the modern country.

The tender movie called “Old Partner” tells of the hardscrabble life of an aging couple trying to eke out a living in the South Korean countryside and their ox that has served them for 30 years.

So far, it has attracted more than 1 million viewers in the country of 49 million, including South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who made a rare trip to a Seoul cinema to see it last week.

“Some people have said this film is like a lottery ticket that accidentally hits the jackpot,” Lee Chung-ryoul, the documentary’s director, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Lee said he started thinking of making a movie like this during the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis that hit South Korea hard. At that time, a popular theme in the media was how far fathers needed to go to provide for their families, he said.

The film’s opening coincides with the global financial crisis, which has battered South Korea’s economy and made the theme relevant again, Lee said. “This film reminds people of their own parents and hometowns, and that’s universal,” he added.

After a long search, the director came across what he felt was the perfect couple, a laconic rice farmer named Choi Won-gyun, 80, his cantankerous wife Lee Sam-soon, 77, and an ox they never bothered to name.

The documentary tracks them through the seasons and shows how farmer Lee, who has a deformed leg, has come to rely on the ox for work and to draw a cart that transports him.

The film made for what local media said was 200 million won ($136,000) is the country’s first independent film to crack 100 billion won at the local box office despite an initial opening on just 10 screens when it hit theatres a month ago.

It soon expanded its run to about 200 screens, leading its box office revenue to jump. The documentary has been shown at the Sundance Film Festival and it may go overseas.

The couple at the center of the film has not been happy about their new-found celebrity status, which has intruded on their once peaceful lives.

“The media attention and an increasing number of visitors are overwhelming the couple,” the director said, adding he has pleaded with reporters to leave the two alone.

($1=1470.8 Won)

Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Miral Fahmy

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