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Old Partner (워낭 소리, Wonang sori literally Sound of a Cow Bell) is a 2008 S Korean documentary film directed by Lee Chung-ryoul regarding a relationship between a 40-year-old cow and an old farmer in his 80s. The film was a surprise success and had attracted more than 2 million viewers as of March 1, 2009, setting the record for the highest grossing independent film in Korean film history.
A South Korean documentary made instant stars of two elderly farmers and their aged ox. Now if the public would just stop sticking its nose into the couple's lives.
BONGHWA, SOUTH KOREA — The stampede to see South Korea's most reluctant celebrities starts early, often before they're out of bed.
On many weekends, hundreds of tourists appear at the tumbledown homestead to meet 82-year-old farmer Choi Won-kyun and his loving but nagging wife, Lee Sam-sun.
They're the unlikely stars of "Old Partner," a documentary that chronicles two years in the lives of the hard-working couple as they await the death of the aging cow that has served them faithfully for 40 years.
The movie shattered box-office records here for an independent film, becoming an instant low-budget classic, a fable about love, loyalty and rural Korean values -- and also a touching, sometimes funny, tale of a wife's jealousy over the bond between husband and bovine.
But since the movie's January premiere, a near-daily invasion of curious visitors has threatened the tranquil life of the illiterate couple, who just want to be left alone. Everyone wants a piece of them, pestering for countless photos: Stand here. Pose there. Bale more hay. Smile! Now take us to the old cow's grave site for just a few more snapshots. The boldest intruders barge into the house uninvited.
"I'm gratified that people are interested in my parents," says Choi Won-kyun, the eldest of the couple's nine children. "If only they would have a sip of coffee and leave, but they stay. What can my parents do? Hospitality is part of rural life. We don't have any choice but to welcome them."
The project brought first-time director Lee Chung-ryul overnight success as well as a hard lesson in filmmaking: Sometimes a documentary can imperil the very subjects it works to portray.
"From the start, I promised I would protect this couple," he says. "But this movie has become more successful than I ever imagined. It has taken on a life of its own."
Lee wanted to make a documentary about the beauty of simple things. To tell the story, he chose a farmer who preferred his devoted old cow over any modern tractor.
He was inspired by his own rural childhood and the novelist Pearl S. Buck, who nearly a century ago wrote of a farmer and cow she saw on a trip to Korea.
"She said it was the most beautiful scene she had ever witnessed," says Lee, 42, a small man with a Beatles-style mop of hair. "Now the cow's status has changed. They're no longer family members but seen as pieces of meat."
For five years, he searched for the right relationship between man and beast. In 2002, he was introduced to Choi, who recently had been informed that his female ox's days were numbered. She had already lived far longer than most.
The pair's similarities astounded him: Nearly deaf with a malformed leg, the limping farmer was often forced to crawl across his rice fields. The staggering brown cow, which is never given a name, was no better off. Choi often groomed the skinny animal's diseased hide and fed her special gruel to keep her strength up.
For Lee, the pair seemed to have a secret pact: Keep working together or we'll both die.
In 2005, he began shooting what he saw as an intimate chronicle of the cow's final year. Problems arose from day one.
Choi resisted any intrusion he felt would interrupt his chores. Every time Lee approached with his camera, Choi and his wife stopped talking, or stared as though posing for a snapshot.
So the director affixed microphones to the couple's clothes and filmed from a distance with a zoom lens.
What his camera captured was a poignant real-life drama, as the woman constantly berated her husband for not exchanging his old partner for a tractor.
In her gravelly voice, she nags him to use chemicals that would improve crop yields and about the energy he wastes doting on the cow -- but especially about her tiring labors caring for both animal and husband.
"We work so hard," she tells the cow one day. "We both met the wrong man."
Choi finally relents and takes the cow to sell at market, but he sagely asks for so much money that the cattle buyers laugh in his face.
"This cow is better than a human," he says. "When it dies, I'll be its chief mourner -- and I'll follow. I'm alive because of this cow."
Later, Choi sits forlornly with his head in his arms as his wife gripes that he loves the cow more than he loves her. He doesn't react, but when the animal lows, his head jerks up.
"It was a romantic triangle," says director Lee. "The old woman was jealous because her husband gave the cow more attention."
The farmer endured both wife and filmmaker.
"There were two things that got him upset," Lee says. "When his wife started nagging and when he saw me coming."
A year into the project, Lee found that the old cow was ignoring her stage cue: She refused to die. Making the film with borrowed money, he fought with his producer over the financing and deadline.
"At one point, I told the cow, 'Could you please die faster?' I feel bad about that now," Lee says.