New for me
There were two reasons why I picked up a copy of Rolling Home with a Bull: actress Gong Hyojin, who I've been fond of since I saw her performance as a mean girl with heart in Conduct Zero and director Im Soonrye, who, with the exception of Fly, Penguin, has directed movies I've largely liked. I liked Im's previous films for their great focus on realistic human drama and Im's ability to draw that continues in this film, a road movie featuring the titular bull, but this one adds a bit of quirkiness, which is interesting, but is at times overdone, but not to the point of derailing just how strong the film is overall.
Based on Kim Doyeon's book of the same name, the film centers on Sunho (Kim Youngpil), a 40-year old farmer-poet, who, sick of having to shovel his family's bull's droppings, takes the bull away in the middle of the night to sell it. However, as he ventures to sell it, he finds himself encountering an interesting cast of characters as well as Hyunsoo (Gong Hyojin), a woman who was part of a trio of a friends nicknamed Peter, Paul and Mary (after the band) and who went off and married Peter, leaving Sunho, our Paul in anguish. But, on his journey to rid himself of his burden, he discovers a lot more about himself and this relationship from his past.
For the most part, this is great. I'm guessing the original story made the connection between the bull and Sunho's past and Sunho's own recognition of his relationship to it. I like his lying to himself and to Hyunsoo about how he feels about the past. I also find the Buddhist themes (which, as presented, are not especially religious) in the film to be well placed and integrated into the story and how the cast of characters he encounters makes Sunho reflect on his own relationship to the bull and to Hyunsoo.
The film also includes some surreal moments that usually, but not always, turn out to be dream sequences, which were refreshing and revealing at times, however as the film reaches the final reel, these increase in presence and tempo and lead to a bit of continued confusion as to whether what we're watching is reality or the dreams, which might have been all right if Im decided to go Fellini or Buñuel on us, but for a film that was rather short on these moments early on and one that chooses to ground most of these moments in dreams, the increase in frequency results in some rather confusing moments where it's unclear whether Sunho is dreaming or not, and, towards the end, it doesn't really add much to the film seeing as the story and characters develop just fine without them.
Im has a fine handle on how these dramas work and her skill as a director shows with her talent for capturing the locations that Sunho journeys to. She also manages to create moments of natural comedy and handles her actors well. Again, the only noticeable weakness in the film comes from how the surreal dream sequences are handled towards the end of the film. The actors also handle their roles well, including the cow, which is a significant presence throughout the film, itself given a touch of humanity via direction and animal handlers. The film itself doesn't look as shiny and glossy as a mainstream film, but still has good production and its look befits its road movie nature.
I really liked Rolling Home with a Bull quite a bit. It handled its story and themes in such a literary fashion that I think it likely does justice to its source novel and although I found the surreal dreams over-present in the film to the point of final reel confusion and bloat, it doesn't derail what Sunho discovers and accepts about himself through his journey and doesn't make that journey any less interesting to watch. Good stuff. 8/10.