Saturday, March 28, 2009

(Korea) needs more cowbell!

The Los Angeles Times has a nice overview of the surprise runaway hit documentary "Old Partner" (워낭소리, wonang sori; literally, "sound of a cowbell"), including a small photo gallery.

Following in the footsteps of another sleeper hit, "The Way Home" (집으로, chibŭro), it is providing Korea's middle-aged and older city folk a chance to reminisce about with their own bucolic childhoods, while providing Korea's urban youth a glimpse into the past of their parents and especially their grandparents.

For tens of millions of South Koreans, "Old Partner" and "The Way Home" (which included several first-time elderly actors from the area where the fictional film was shot, playing the grandmother role and her neighbors) represent a bygone era. But this bygone era is the present day for perhaps millions more, for whom the slower paced, less developed, and economically teetering agricultural existence is the only thing they've ever known — or probably will know.

South Koreans are keenly aware that there is blight in the vast rural areas outside the capital Seoul and the metropolitan prefectures of Inchon, Pusan, Taegu, Taejon, and Kwangju. But these areas are fly-over country, drive-by territory, green swaths barely glimpsed as one speeds down the expressway, if they are seen at all.

They know of the problems facing the partners, from the financial hardship of making ends meet in an increasingly expensive country where land is costly and the payoff from farming small, to their difficulty in finding brides to carry on filial responsibilities and the family farm, causing many to seek marital partners from outside the country. Indeed, not only is Korea's bread basket and rice bowl an alien place to most urban countries because it lacks the 24-hour conveniences of the big city, but also because it is increasingly populated by people who did not grow up speaking Korean.

And thus, these movies have been reminding people of what has been lost to them. They beckon people to the countryside, even if it is for the gimmick of meeting octogenarians Choe Won-gun (최원군) and his wife Lee Samsun (이삼순), and their forty-year old bovine.

Farmer Lee and Farmer Choe are suffering, in fact, in that they are getting too much attention:
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."
I guess it's feast or famine. One minute they're neglected, and the next minute their celebrities inundated with attention. Instead of being the umpteenth person to visit these three, perhaps what people should do is look around them. No matter where you are in Korea, but particularly in the older neighborhoods, there are plenty of elderly people who would love to have a little face time with a younger person. In my neighborhood, one of the first modern neighborhoods of early 20th century Seoul, there is no shortage of septuagenarians, octogenarians, or nonagenarians. There's even the odd centenarian here and there.

They have fascinating stories to tell. Some happy, some sad. But all things they would love to share if someone half their age or younger gave a damn. When my octogenarian-turned-nonagenarian mŏn-halmŏni lived with me, I would occasionally accompany her to the local clinic or the local pharmacy, where other folks her age would gather. They would talk with each other, share gossip, tell what they knew of what their grandchildren were up to. Routine stuff for elderly all over the world, I suppose.

It was always a thrill to meet some new young person, and I can't begin to tell you how many of them tried to hook me up with their granddaughters (I did, in fact, date one, a nurse named Hyŏnhŭi, but she left for the States). So if this movie (which I have yet to see) inspires you, leave Farmer Choe and Lee alone, and instead strike up a conversation with your elderly neighbor the next time you're at the dentist or the doctor's office.

[above: "Hey, you ethnics! Get off my lawn!"]

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