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Indie film "Old Partner" stirs controversy as it breaks new ground

All Headlines 10:26 March 03, 2009

By Shin Hae-in

SEOUL, March 3 (Yonhap) -- As independent feature film "Old Partner (Warnangsori)" continues to set new records in South Korea's blockbuster-dominated box office, it has also generated increasing controversy over digital piracy and the privacy of its main subjects.

Made at a cost of just 200 million won (US$132,700), the documentary about the bonds of loyalty forged between an old farmer and his ox has already earned over 30 times its production cost in net profit, according to its distributor Indie Story.

The movie topped the 2 million viewer mark this week.

"This prize doesn't belong to me. It belongs to the hundreds of indie filmmakers out there struggling to make something valuable and meaningful despite the harsh circumstances," said director Lee Chung-ryul after accepting the award for best emerging director at South Korea's Baeksang Arts Awards last week. "I dream of a country where all independent filmmakers are able to make the movie of their dreams."

But while the film has drawn renewed attention to the domestic indie film industry, inspiring hope for directors on shoestring budgets, its fame and success have also led to some unpleasant controversies.

On Monday, producers requested that police track down uploaders of illegal copies of the film on domestic sites, raising the longstanding issue over digital piracy in the world's most wired country.

Illegal copies of the film have been traded among thousands of Internet users since Feb. 27, according to Seoul police. The producers asked Internet service providers to voluntarily delete the illegal posts, which had already circulated beyond their control by that point.

The film's focus, an old farmer couple living in the North Gyeongsang region, have also come under mounting stress as hundreds of people have visited their house since the film hit theatres in January, producers said. Some people are even sending letters to the couple's children, criticizing them for "abandoning" their old parents.

"I cannot sleep at night thinking I have ended up causing mental stress to the old man and his family," director Lee said in a recent interview.

The Gyeongsang Provincial Government exacerbated the controversy after it announced plans to introduce a tour program around the old couple's house and land beginning this week.

It said the program would bring local and foreign tourists to the underdeveloped region and promised "utmost effort" in protecting the couple's privacy.

On-line critics accused the provincial government of selling out the couple's privacy for money.

"Old Partner," which became a surprise hit thanks largely to word of mouth advertising, is screening at more than 200 theaters nationwide. The film opened virtually unnoticed at seven cinemas on Jan. 15.

The movie centers on a touching yet humorous companionship between an elderly farming couple and their rickety ox, which is diagnosed with cancer after serving the couple faithfully for more than 30 years.

Winner of the 2008 Pusan International Film Festival, "Old Partner" was the first Korean documentary to compete at the Sundance Film Festival.

hayney@yna.co.kr
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