Lee Chung-Ryoul, Old Partner
Topping the Korean box office is no small feat for a first-time filmmaker, given the perennial offerings of sassy romantic comedies and vivid, attention-grabbing genre flicks from this nation’s impressive stable of film artists. It’s even more improbable when you’ve made a no-frills documentary (not so popular in South Korea) for less than $150,000 about the relationship between an elderly farmer and his aged ox. But a few months after it hit the market at the 2008 Pusan International Film Festival, where it won the best documentary award, Lee Chung-ryoul’s Old Partner became one of the most successful indies in Korean film history, playing on more than 150 local screens and drawing 1 million viewers on word-of-mouth buzz alone. It went on to jostle for the Grand Jury Prize in world documentary at Sundance last January, the first time a Korean documentary has been entered in the Park City competition. No one must have been more surprised than Lee, a veteran TV producer whose humble maiden feature—a human-bovine buddy film—has captured the imagination of audiences from Seoul to Vienna.
Shot on HD over the course of a year, Old Partner is a real-life fable of earthy, heartbreaking simplicity. Choi Won-kyun is an 80-year-old farmer in poor health still toiling in the rice fields of Bongwha without benefit of modern machinery. Instead, he relies solely on his bony, barely thriving female ox, perhaps the oldest in Korea, which he treats like a member of the family, caressing it tenderly (“this ox is better than any person to me”) and swatting at it with his cane when he’s annoyed at the animal’s sluggish pace. Choi’s wife, Lee Sam-soon, works alongside her husband, berating him for indulging the beast of burden with specially gathered feed, clearly jealous of their unusual, cross-species bond. (Betrothed at age 16, in an arranged marriage, she feels her life was ruined by marrying “the wrong man.”) Lee observes the trio in their rustic labors, often capturing plaintive glimpses of Choi and his ox in gracefully composed long shots, emphasizing the dignity of toil as well as the pitiable conditions of their existence. A story of friendship and a wistful ode to agrarian lifestyles that have all but vanished in the industrial age, Old Partner wrings a poignant beauty from its timeless themes of aging, illness, loss, and loyalty.
Filmmaker spoke with Lee about Korean folk paintings, the demise of Old World agricultural traditions, and why he owes Choi’s nameless ox (now deceased) an apology.
Old Partner opens today at Film Forum in New York.
Filmmaker: You work as a television producer in Korea. Did you first develop Old Partner for that medium?
Lee: My 15-year career as a TV producer started in 1998 when Korea was in the midst of the Asian financial crisis. Korea was receiving aid from the International Monetary Fund to resurrect its fallen economy. During this difficult time, I produced shows about the lives of unemployed Korean men, who reminded me of my own father and his struggles; that’s where I derived inspiration for Old Partner.
Filmmaker: How did you find Mr. Choi and his wife? Did you someone approach you with an angle on the oldest ox in Korea?
Lee: Initially, I wanted to feature my own parents in Old Partner. My father has been a struggling small farmer all his life. Starting in the late 1980s, around the time of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the farming industry in Korea became rapidly modernized. To adapt and survive the trend, my father had to sell his cow—which up to that point was his only tool to cultivate the land in lieu of modern equipment—and start a pig farm. As the film’s pivotal themes were the traditional farming culture of Korea and the friendship between the farmer and his cow, it meant that I had to find characters who were still farming the old-fashioned way. In addition, I wanted to capture the old Korean family dynamic in the film that I saw in my parents. My father is a typical paternal figure in a traditional Korean household: Dominant, stoic, and unable to express his emotions. My mother, as a result, was hardened over the years and learned to express her long-harbored discontentment in incessant nagging. I had spent five years in search of people to film. I ultimately met and chose Mr. and Mrs. Choi in Bongwha, a small farming town in the southeastern part of Korea, based on their similarity to my parents’ lifestyle and relationship to one another.
Filmmaker: Were they baffled by your interest in their story, or resistant to your presence at all?
Lee: We had a lot of difficulties filming the couple. Mr. Choi was reticent and inarticulate. He didn’t understand the concept of filming. When a camera came near to capture him in action, he would stop what he was doing, awkwardly pose for the shots, and anticipate photographs to be taken on cue. Mr. Choi hated closeups, as he felt the crew was interrupting his work. Whenever he felt we got too close to him during filming, he would strike us down with his cane in anger. Mrs. Choi, on the other hand, was overly eager to be in front of the camera. She tried too hard to look pretty by putting on a ton of makeup and acting unnaturally. Therefore, I decided that the optimal way to minimize disturbance to Mr. Choi and deemphasize the unnatural looks of the characters was to mainly use long shots.
Filmmaker: It must have taken you a while to integrate and find an unintrusive approach.
Lee: The Choi’s daily life was very simple and repetitious with their strenuous work schedule from the crack of dawn to late night. So one camera was used in a stationary position to mirror and capture their monotonous life, focusing on the sounds of their life. During filming, we began to focus more on the relationship between Mr. Choi, Mrs. Choi, and the old cow. This is how the film evolved into a melodrama among the three characters: a love triangle with two females, Mrs. Choi and the old cow, competing for Mr. Choi’s affection.
Filmmaker: The very tender, almost symbiotic relationship between Choi and his ox contrasts sharply with the relationship between Choi and his wife, who airs her grievances and feels her life has been spoiled by marrying “the wrong man.”
Lee: Mrs. Choi was married to Mr. Choi at the age of 16. Following the old Korean tradition, the couple’s nuptial was arranged by the parents and they didn’t get to meet until the day of the wedding. Mrs. Choi had high expectations of the groom as her parents said that he was a handsome young man. Much to her dismay, however, when she met her husband for the first time, she didn’t find this to be true.
Filmmaker: How do these two central relationships—the ox and the man, the man and his wife—reflect traditional notions of love and community, to your mind?
Lee: I believe that Korean culture still remains heavily influenced by Confucianism, where the hierarchy and order of the household and community is established by men. This is especially true in farming towns. The women take a backseat, often sacrificing themselves to uphold their men. It’s almost inevitable that most Korean women become constant naggers as a way to cope with and express their suppressed voice. I wanted Old Partner to capture the nuances of traditional gender roles in Korean society.
Filmmaker: Is there a general nostalgia in Korea for the traditional rustic lifeways that your film depicts?
Lee: The Korean farming tradition is dying because its core elements are vanishing. It’s gotten to the point where the current young generation doesn’t have any recollection of the old farming culture, as they have not been exposed to it. In recent days, the sons and daughters of farming towns often move out to the cities for a better education and life, while their aging parents remain behind to continue farming to support their children. What these young people often forget is that they are, and always will be, joined to their roots in the country, their farm, parents, and cattle which have nurtured them through the years. You are forever connected to your roots in the circle of life. In Old Partner, I tried to capture the sadness of the lost traditions and also the strength and beauty of the farmers’ dedication to their livelihood.
Filmmaker: Old Partner deals with the dignity of old age, too.
Lee: This film has a strong undercurrent of Confucian philosophy. Filial piety is one of the main principles of Confucianism, and I tried to reflect the guilt I’ve been feeling toward my father for the sacrifices he’s made for his family. Watching the old farmer and his cow work strenuously in the field made me think in depth about life, work, aging, and death. Also, it made me think about all the countless sacrifices parents make for their children. My desire to express the guilt I feel for not being able to repay all the debt I owe to my parents definitely has been one of the primary motivations for making this film.
Filmmaker: Why do you think Old Partner resonated so deeply with Korean audiences?
Lee: Maybe it’s because there are so many selfish children in Korea like me who feel guilty toward their parents? [Laughs] I think the film’s success might be partly due to the depressed economy in Korea when it was released. By watching this film, people perhaps were able to escape momentarily from their hard life by reminiscing about their forgotten roots and past.
Filmmaker: Could you tell me more about the Korean folk paintings you mention in your director’s notes as a source of inspiration?
Lee: My film was inspired from the core concept of the Korean folk-painting tradition: Emphasis on the beauty of moderation, simplicity, and emptiness. A Korean traditional painting would not have layers of paint, but rather simple strokes and minimal colors. It also would not have its subject fill the whole canvas but allow it to be surrounded by abundant blank space. The film was made in a similar style. The documentary is without narration and with minimal music.
Filmmaker: You worked in a number of cinematic effects here: there’s a high-angle shot at the cattle market, for instance, and a slow-motion sequence when the calf knocks over Mr. Choi. Is this common in Korean television documentaries, or did you think the film required these additional flourishes?
Lee: I believe that creating a documentary film isn’t about merely recording but also creatively interpreting the story I’m capturing. As long as the essence of truth is preserved, I believe it’s up to the filmmaker to use his creativity and imagination to decide how to tell the story to his audience. I was inspired by a famous Korean painting from the Chosun Dynasty. The painting portrays a cat grabbing a chick from a hen house and running away from a man who chases after it with a cane. Behind the man is his wife, following him closely in worry that he’ll fall. From this painting you could read into each character’s emotions. Similarly, in some scenes of Old Partner, slow-motion techniques were used to emphasize the emotions of the characters at crucial junctures.
Filmmaker: What was the biggest challenge for you in making your first documentary feature?
Lee: Everything was difficult about making this film. But the single most difficult thing was trying really hard to not become personally attached to Mr. and Mrs. Choi. In order to maintain my professional distance, I didn’t even share a meal with them. Mr. and Mrs. Choi actually became angry with me at one point asking why I would befriend all other elders in the neighborhood but not them. I believe that emotional restraint was the key to success of this documentary.
Filmmaker: Were there any other surprises?
Lee: There was another major setback which I never shared with anyone publicly until now. It was established from the beginning that the end point of shooting would be when the old cow dies. When budgeting for the cost of filming, we had predicted that the cow would die within three to six months. Under this assumption, the production company was willing to finance the film. To everyone’s surprise, she actually lived for more than a year. This caused the film to go over budget significantly and created tension between me and the production company as they started to have suspicions that I might have deceived them about the life expectancy of the cow. Toward the end of the project, every time we went down to Bonghwa to shoot, I would secretly pray that the cow would die so we could wrap up. Now, I feel truly awful about the way I felt and want to express my sincere regret and appreciation for the financial success the cow has brought to us. Coincidentally, this is the year of the ox in the Asian calendar.