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Two Indie Directors Conquer Local Cinema

2009/02/08 Source

By Lee Hyo-won
Staff Reporter

Two independent films are creating a buzz in the local cinema. "Old Partner", a small documentary, rewrote box office history for the genre, while "Daytime Drinking", a mini-budget road movie, created hype even before its release.

The first South Korean documentary to compete at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, "Old Partner" has drawn in over 100,000 viewers since its release Jan. 15. The number may seem small when compared to box office scores of local blockbusters, but it is the largest ever tally for an independent movie and is doubly significant considering that documentaries are a minority within the minor genre.

"Daytime Drinking" debuted at the 9th Jeonju International Film Festival and went on to win awards at several overseas events, including Locarno last year. A triumph of creativity over pitifully meager resources, the movie is receiving as much media spotlight as anticipated blockbusters. It is a breath of fresh air for Korean cinema, which has seen the failure of many expensive, star-studded ventures.

Both films, moreover, feature quintessentially Korean themes that have universal appeal: "Old Partner" nostalgically documents "hanwu" (native Korean oxen), though as a friend rather than beef, and "Daytime Drinking" is made complete with soju, the favorite drink among Koreans. The Korea Times met with the directors of the two films ― Lee Chung-ryoul to discuss his heart-wrenching documentary, and Noh Young-seok to laugh about his ticklishly funny road movie.

Man's Best Friend, Cow

The Year of the Ox has so far been a lucky one for Lee. "Selling over 100,000 tickets isn't all that great", said the "Old Partner" director, jokingly complaining about non-stop press meetings in an interview with The Korea Times. "I also hope the Hanwoo (hanwu) Association doesn't send me a written protest", said Lee about unintentionally dissuading some viewers from consuming hanwu. The 42-year-old himself does not eat beef.

In Korea, which was traditionally an agricultural society, cows were the most helpful farmhands. After a lifetime of servitude, it gave off itself for a rare feast, and Koreans ate everything from head to tail, with gratitude.

"Today, cows are just thought of as beef. I wanted to show it could be more than that", he said. After searching for subjects, the director found a miraculous 40-year-old cow in North Gyeongsang Province ― cows usually live for only 15 years.

The documentary traces an old man's inseparable relationship with his old cow. Unlike his neighbors, Choi Won-gyun, 80, refuses to live in tune with modern times. Despite his bad leg, he stubbornly works with his cow instead of a tractor. The cow also helps him gather firewood for their ondol (traditional floor heating system) and safely drives him downtown through traffic.

To the great chagrin of his wife, Choi refuses to spray insecticide since it is harmful for the cow, and insists on giving the cow homemade feed. The film is spiced with humor as it portrays dynamics between the typical nagging wife and the taciturn husband. "There is also a sort of love triangle between the old man, his wife and his beloved cow, which is female", said the director.

But old age and death go hand in hand, and the cow has only one year left to live. The camera captures spring, summer, fall and winter in the countryside, and the constant ringing of "weonang" (cowbell, the film's Korean title) and the whisperings of nature's creatures make up the soundtrack. The film leaves a lasting sting in the heart as viewers are left on their own to graze upon life, friendship and death.

"Old Partner" steers away from convention, and does without a sappy film score, narrator or interviews. Nor does it strive to uncover a truth with a cold eye. Rather, it documents a sentiment and fully incorporates the director's intentions ― "It's like breaking down facts, like pieces of a jar, and piecing them back together in my own way", explained Lee. "The documentary is in chronological order, of course, but I edited it in a way so that there would be a balance of heavy drama and comic relief", he said.

"Not all documentaries need to be serious and critical of current events. The documentary genre needs to become diverse, and it's meaningless if it cannot communicate with viewers", he said. Lee, in fact, was unable to utilize the advantages of the genre: Choi didn't want the production to interfere with everyday life, and so the director was unable to film interviews.

There were also budget problems. "Old Partner" took over three years to make, and even though using the digital medium saved money, Lee had to take a part time job. He sometimes needed to double as the director of photography, and because he had to commute, he missed a couple of incidents he would have liked to insert in the movie.

"Editing the film served as a time for self-examination. I wondered if we truly understand what's best for our parents", said Lee, whose own parents also live in the countryside. The movie features a traditional visit by Choi's grown children on Chuseok (Thanksgiving). Oblivious of their father's friendship with his cow, they tell him to sell her, since keeping her would only encourage him to toil in the fields.

"The film is about an incredible story of a man and his cow, but I hope it will enable all of us to think about our parents", he said. Another concern for Lee is that the film's popularity directed the media spotlight to Choi, who has just started recovering from his old partner's death. "Please leave them alone", he said.

English subtitles are now available for "Old Partner" at Indiespace, located within Spongehouse Myeongdong (aka. Joongang Cinema), near Eulijiro 3-ga Station on subway lines 3 and 4. All ages are admitted. 78 minutes.

Seduction of Soju

As the title suggests, "Daytime Drinking" shows that drinking in the middle of the day will most likely lead to trouble. For the heterosexual male, a pretty woman, even if she has sinister intentions, will be another temptation that's hard to resist.

It all began with a drink. Hearbroken Hyeok-jin has a round of soju with his friends. They suggest a trip to Jeongseon, a popular destination in Gangwon Province. The next morning, however, his friends are hung over and Hyeok-jin is the only one that shows up. But he isn't out of luck, as a pretty young woman, also traveling solo, approaches him.

But seaside in the winter turns out to be far from romantic. Hyeok-jin ends up wearing only his underwear in the middle of the highway, and if that didn't seem bad enough he meets more strangers whose first impressions turn out to be rather deceiving after some booze.

The 32-year-old director was inspired to write the script during his own stay at a boarding house in Jeongseon. "It was wintertime and I was lonely. Soju was my only companion and I wondered what would happen if a pretty woman who's also traveling alone stayed next door", Noh Young-seok told The Korea Times.

"I made the film with friends as if we were having fun on a trip", he said. Shot digitally in 13 days with just 10 million won ($10,000), "Daytime Drinking" nevertheless made it to international events alongside last year's blockbuster "The Good, the Bad, the Weird". It also inspired curiosity about soju among foreign viewers.

Critics praised the movie as "proof that a good script and simpatico direction and performances can overcome budgetary restrictions" (Variety magazine). The central theme of Daytime Drinking originated from trying to save money, so as not to worry about lighting at night.

After failing one movie script competition after another, Noh decided to make a movie on his own with friends he met at a local film academy. "It was a matter of survival, and I was focused on just finishing the movie", he said. The director did everything from the writing and shooting to editing, as well as playing a cameo as the restaurant owner. The original film score comes from an old album Noh made when he tried, and failed, to become a professional musician.

"Cinema is the best form of self-expression, for now", he said. "I just hope the audience can enjoy `Daytime Drinking' lightheartedly, without the prejudice that indie flicks are serious and experimental.

"Independent films need to become diverse, with their own set of genres ranging from horror to dramas and thrillers", he continued. He does not have concrete plans about his next piece, though he wants to continue making small budget digital films with commercial appeal.

"I hope viewers will be inspired to go have a round of drinks with friends", he said. "Daytime Drinking" is now showing in theaters. 115 minutes. 15 and over. Distributed by Jin Jin.

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