Friday, September 23, 2011

Yeonghwa ’11: Rolling Home with a Bull

There were like a Korean Jules & Jim trio of friends, who dubbed themselves Peter, Paul & Mary. Peter was Mary’s recently deceased husband. He is also Paul’s old plough-driving bull. No, this is not a case of reincarnation, but there is plenty of karma in Yim Soon-rye’s Buddhist themed Rolling Home with a Bull (trailer here), which screens today as part of Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today, co-presented by MoMA and the Korea Society.

Sun-ho was Paul, the loser in the love triangle. A failed poet, he works on the family farm resenting every minute. After a typical argument with his father, Sun-ho packs up the old man’s beloved bull into the trailer and lights out for the livestock market. Finding no takers, he starts driving across Korea, looking for a buyer. Through the power of “life on the road,” he crosses paths with Mary, or Catherine to continue the Truffaut analogy. Her real name is Hyun-soo and she is still in mourning for her husband, Peter.

Interested in perhaps rekindling with Sun-ho, or at least achieving some proper closure, Hyun-soo initiates further encounters, but he is having none of it. At least the bull is starting to grow on him, which is why it irks him when Hyun-soo starts calling him Peter. However, his subconscious (or maybe the collective unconscious) is trying to tell him something important throughout his deceptively random pilgrimage.

Despite the rollicking title and the big snorting bull, Rolling is a deeply spiritual film. Though it does not completely ignore the comic possibilities of life on the road with an old grumpy cow, it treats the material very seriously. Much like Naoki Katô’s excellent Abraxas, Rolling takes what sounds like a sitcom premise and turns it into a sincere and thoughtful exploration of Buddhist tenets, particularly the need to let go of the past and embrace forgiveness.

Kim Young-pil and Kong Hyo-jin are nearly perfect together as Sun-ho and Hyun-soo, conveying all the painful history and lingering attraction that continues to entangle them. It is a well played and smartly scripted on-screen relationship that passes up several opportunities for neat and convenient conclusions, forcing the couple to really work through their issues. The bull is nice too.

Rolling is a richly rewarding film that sneaks up on viewers, bringing out hidden dimensions as it unspools. A real crowd pleaser, it has legitimate breakout commercial potential, but not as another exercise in quirky cuteness. Highly recommended, it screens again during Yeonghwa (that is Korean for “film”) this afternoon (9/23) at MoMA, so New Yorkers should contrive an excuse to sneak out of the office early.