Yim Soon-rye's new drama provides some much-needed inspiration.
In Korean cinema, when characters retreat to the countryside things generally don't work out too well for them, but in Yim Soon-rye's new drama Little Forest, a young woman regains her spirit, and as she does so, many viewers will leave the theater with a desire for the simple life. This adaptation of a popular Japanese manga (already adapted into a two-part Japanese film) gives Kim Tae-ri her first lead role since her breakout part in Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden and offers a distinct Korean flavor in what is a cinematic love letter to 'slow living'.
Hae-won is a young country girl who returns to her mother's humble home following a stint in the city. She was studying to become a teacher and supporting herself by working part time at a convenience store but when she failed her exam and decided she'd had enough of city life she decided to return to her farming roots. Back home, where she lives alone after her mother suddenly vanished before her own departure (until she is given the pet dog Ogu), she cooks local dishes with local ingredients and reconnects with here two childhood friends, Jae-ha (Ryu Jun-yeol) and Eun-sook (Jin Ki-joo).
One part cooking travelogue and one part tonic for the soul, Little Forest is an unlikely success in an industry that prizes gritty thrillers, bleak dramas or fantastical romance. While it's solution to Seoul's soul-crushing lifestyle occasionally glosses over the harsh realities of Korea's country life, there's no denying it's heart-tickling sincerity and the 'joie de vivre' it squeezes from its charming, if idealized demonstration of a self-sustainable lifestyle.
Little Forest makes a big show of its simplicity, yet its neat structure and themes belie a great deal of careful construction. The manifold cooking scenes are more handsome than the choicest sequences found on the food channel while the film's four-act structure is beautifully rendered through Korea's distinct four seasons (the production took place over the course of a year in four separate blocks to highlight the stark seasonal changes and the emotional vacillations they mirror in the story).
This endearing youth drama proves to be another convincing showcase for Kim Tae-ri, who recently appeared in an important supporting role in the wrenching political drama 1987: When the Day Comes. Kim's charm and grit, as she quietly works through the difficulties of her life, are likely to strike a chord with young women in Korea and beyond.
In a powerful supporting turn, screen veteran Moon So-ri is a commanding presence as Hae-won's mother, who appears only in flashback. Moon inscribes layers of life into this deft cook and caring, if ultimately inscrutable mother figure. With wit and flair she recounts her delectable recipes, which take on the aura of meaningful life lessons.
There's no denying the appeal of the lifestyle that Little Forest describes, yet as it idealizes traditional Korean culture and cuisine, it presents a lifestyle that appears achingly pure and fulfilling but which is utterly unattainable. The story opts to gloss over som elements of country lifestyle, such as the extreme cold of winter in the local climate or Korean cuisine's heavy reliance on meat, which is never consumed in the film.
While Little Forest differs in form from the majority of director Yim's work (with the possible exception of the bleaker road indie Rolling Home with a Bull), the film foreground Yim's interest in relatable characters taking it upon themselves to accept and move past their unfair circumstances through their own effort, such as Waikiki Brothers or Forever the Moment (also featuring Moon). If her latest film should not be taken as a literal blueprint for getting oneself out of an urban rut, at the very least if provides some much-needed inspiration for reconnecting with nature and our life experiences.