Friday, September 23, 2011

"Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today" Review: Yim Soon-rye's "Rolling Home with a Bull"

Rolling Home with a Bull (Sowa hamkke yeonaenghaneun beop). 2010. Directed by Yim Soon-rye. Written by Park Kyoung-hee, based on the novel "How to Travel with a Cow" by Kim Do-yeon. Produced by Yang Dong-myung. Cinematography by Park Yeong-jun. Edited by Park Kyoung-sook. Music by Roh Young-sim. Production design by Kim Jong-woo. Art direction by Kim Min-jeong. Sound by Seo Young-june.

Cast: Kim Yeong-pil (Choi Sun-ho), Kong Hyo-jin (Lee Hyun-soo), Mek Bo (Han-soo/Peter), Jeon Guk-hwan (Sun-ho's father), Lee Yeong-yi (Sun-ho's mother), Mun Chang-gil (old Buddhist man), Jo Seung-yeon (boy monk's father), Weon Poong-yeon (cow auctioneer), Ahn Do-gyu (boy monk), Jo Moon-eui (policeman), Jeong Weon-jo (Min-gyu), Park Hye-jin (Sun-ho's aunt).

(Note: this review has been cross-posted on New Korean Cinema.)

A humorous, lyrical, and philosophical wonder, Yim Soon-rye’s Rolling Home with a Bull is her best film to date, a superior addition to her already impressive body of work.  Essentially a Buddhist parable, its free-flowing peripatetic nature, following the path of a lovelorn, failed poet who seeks to escape his home and his own past, is filled with warmth and humanity, its import growing deeper with multiple viewings.  The film at first unfolds in a deceptively realistic mode, but then dreams and allegorical visions gradually take over the narrative, pulling the viewer ever so subtly into the rich fabric of its atmosphere, and making the audience a shotgun rider on the spiritual journey taken by its protagonist.

Sun-ho (Kim Yeong-pil), in the opening scenes, has had just about all he can take with the backbreaking work on his family farm, deep in the countryside of Kangwon Province.  His ears ring with the harsh tones of his bickering parents – his irascible, cantankerous father (Jeon Guk-hwan), and long-suffering mother (Lee Yeong-yi) – all day long as they plow the fields with their trusty work bull.  Sun-ho’s father harshly criticizes his son’s impractical and fruitless pursuit of poetry and his habit of coming home late drunk every night.  His mother hectors him to get married, and to follow the example of other village men who have taken Southeast Asian women as wives; in her mind, the clock is rapidly ticking, as Sun-ho is now nearly forty.  (Much of the film’s humor derives from the verbal dueling of Sun-ho’s parents, the father frequently calling his wife a “hag”; this brings to mind the real-life elderly couple of the Korean documentary Old Partner (Lee Chung-ryoul, 2008), which functioned as a paean to bucolic life.)  Finally, Sun-ho’s frustration with his parents and his own feelings of personal failure drive him to taking a pickup truck and the family’s bull out on the road, with the aim to sell the bull and use the money to go traveling.  The remainder of the film takes the form of a road movie, a familiar staple of Korean cinema, as Sun-ho is forced on a long trip because he can find no buyers for the bull.

The Buddhist content becomes ever more apparent as the story progresses; besides the bull itself, which we are told has great symbolic value in Buddhism, other recurring figures appear: a kindly old monk (Moon Chang-gil) and his “Ohmygod Temple”; a father (Jo Seung-yeon) and young son (Ahn Do-gyu) who beg to ride Sun-ho’s bull in order to gain enlightenment; and, in a late scene, the miraculous blooming of a lotus flower.  But the most important recurring figure in Sun-ho’s life is the sudden reappearance of his estranged former lover Hyun-soo (Kong Hyo-jin), who informs him of the death of her husband, who also was Sun-ho’s best friend.  Hyun-soo’s choice to marry this friend over Sun-ho, we soon learn, is the cause of his retreat from his former city life in Seoul and a deep resentment that has rendered him unable to pursue any other relationships with women.  These characters, and others, serve to guide and instruct Sun-ho on the path he must take to heal his pain and reveal a purpose to his restless wandering.

This is all guided by the unerringly masterful hand of Yim Soon-rye, aided by Park Kyoung-hee’s beautifully written screenplay, based on Kim Do-yeon’s novel How to Travel with a Cow (the film’s Korean title is How to Travel with a Bull), Park Yeong-jun's richly textured cinematography (the Red One digital images nicely capture the beauty of Korea’s countryside), and a well-placed Peter, Paul and Mary folk tune.  As usual, Yim elicits great performances, which in this case go well beyond their allegorical function; Kim Yeong-pil and Kong Hyo-jin are especially great in the drinking scenes that most immediately recall Hong Sang-soo in the way their personal histories spill out as easily as the many bottles of soju they consume.  And last but not least, the titular bull is a compelling, sympathetic character in its own right; while not achieving the sublime depths of Bresson’s Balthazar, it’s at least in the ballpark.

Rolling Home with a Bull screens at the Museum of Modern Art on September 23 at 4:30 as part of the film series “Yeonghwa: Korean FilmToday,” screening September 22 through October 2.  For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit MoMA’s website

1 comment:

Fine Arts Reviews said...

I personally love when comedic actors do serious roles. I think it benefits both the audience and the actor. Just think if robin williams never did a serious role. As somebody who loves everything comedy, I feel like a good serious role deepens my love for that actor and impresses me when they can nail both. Also it goes the other way to. Good dramatic actors doing hilarious comedic characters... Tom Cruise... Boom