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A low budget tale of bovine-human love captivates South Korea.
SEOUL — Man meets cow. Man loses cow. Man finds cow again.
While not exactly adhering to that old Hollywood narrative technique, a peculiar but heartwarming story about an old man and his faithful cow has captured the attention of moviegoers in South Korea.
Dull as it may sound, this low-budget movie has topped the country's box office charts, a first for an independent film here.
"Old Partner," a slow-paced story about a farmer and his companion of 30 years, his cow, has become the most-watched independent film in Korea, drawing more than 1 million viewers just six weeks after its premiere. According to Variety, only $142,000 was spent to make and market the film, a mere pittance by Hollywood standards.
The film's success has many wondering if this could signal a turning point for the Korean film industry, which has been dominated by Hollywood blockbusters and local movies that are increasingly costly to produce.
Here's the "Old Partner" trailer, in its original Korean:
The film seems out of place in a world of fast-paced images and breathtaking special effects. Instead, it seems more like a collection of still shots strung together than like a moving picture, as it portrays the life of an old man as he spends his final days with his cow as it dies of old age.
The cow is the 80-year-old man's best friend, his only farming machine, and his only means of transportation. He rides to his fields every day in a small cart attached to his bovine friend.
Even as the animal, at the age of 40, is in its final days (most cows live to 15), it toils until it can no longer walk or stand. Meanwhile the human character, Choi, hobbles around in search of grass to feed his cow. He also refuses to use pesticides on his crops, fearing he might poison his friend.
That simple, touching plot is working with Korean audiences.
"It feels like I've just heard a beautiful poem," said 47-year-old Shin Yong-shik, after walking out of the cinema with his son and wife. "As the world around us becomes more harsh and urbanized this film reminds people of parts of life that are slowly disappearing."
Director Lee Chung-ryoul would be happy to hear that. "I wanted to portray what might be one of the last stories of heartbreaking sacrifice and the touching interaction between a cow and its owner in the down slopes of life," he said about the film.
The story has left people of all ages teary-eyed, including First Lady Kim Yoon-ok, who with President Lee Myung-bak recently showed up unexpectedly at a Seoul theater to watch the film.
Independent movies are relatively new here. Until recently, most were known only to film buffs and were produced mainly for film festivals. But since 2002 these lower-budget, higher-quality films have became more popular, after the openings of several independent and art film theaters.
"In the past, independent films tended to have underlying political messages in them, or were mostly made only for a certain group of people," said Chung In-sun, of the Korea Film Council. "You might say that the themes were a bit too serious to attract the public in large numbers."
But many here hope that this quiet, poetic tale will lead to more creative films in South Korea. It might just happen.
The producer of "Old Partner" plans to donate 30 percent of his film's profits to help finance a new round of independent films — OK, mooovies.
Read more GlobalPost dispatches from South Korea: