When Hye-won decides to abandon the city, it may seem at first like she’s running away. She’s certainly going to a remote place – her childhood home is in a tiny farming village, completely cut off from the fast-paced, urban lifestyle that epitomizes South Korea. The house itself is empty. And for a woman in her twenties, there doesn’t seem to be much to do there, except grow food on the land surrounding the house, and cook with whatever ingredients can be harvested. It’s subsistence living, dictated by nothing more than the changing of the seasons.
She’s not completely alone there. There’s her elderly aunt, who lives in another part of the village. There’s a dog named Ogu, adopted by Hae-won (or vice versa). And there are two childhood friends – Jae-ha who grows fruits and vegetables, and Eun-sook who commutes to a nearby town to work as a bank teller. The three rekindle their old camaraderie, filled with intimacy and tension, made stronger by the fact that in this remote place, they only have each other.
Hye-won often invites them to her home to share in the meals she prepares. She is an imaginative and proficient cook, having learned from her mother. Indeed, cooking became more of a necessity for her when, during her last year in high school, her mother abruptly left home. Years later, Hae-won is still recovering from this abandonment, even after growing up and becoming independent. And the cooking she does, suffused with old memories, is in part a way to work through her complicated feelings about her mother.
Little Forest is not a typical film. Honestly, it’s just a wisp of a story, with much of its running time devoted to cooking and conversation. Nonetheless, it leaves its audience feeling full. Partly this is due to it being so well made: director Yim Soon-rae (Waikiki Brothers) has over two decades of filmmaking experience, and she’s more than capable of transforming ordinary moments into something alive and meaningful. As for the acting, Kim Tae-ri (who became an instant star in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden) perfectly embodies the blend of independence and unpredictability that defines Hye-won’s character. She’s joined by Ryu Jun-yeol (A Taxi Driver), one of Korea’s most exciting up-and-coming male actors; the acclaimed Moon So-ri (The Running Actress), who brings an enigmatic quality to the flashback scenes with Hye-won’s mother; and talented newcomer Jin Ki-joo as the temperamental, flirtatious Eun-sook.
Little Forest is based on a Japanese manga by Igarashi Daisuke, and some viewers may know a four-hour Japanese adaptation of this book, which begins in the summer, and has an hour devoted to each season. That 2014 work is in some ways even more minimal, with its story structure determined not by plot twists, but by the seasonal ripening of fruits and vegetables. What’s surprising is that even with such arguably basic source material, both films are so fascinating, and for entirely different reasons.
Released in February 2018, Little Forest had a surprisingly strong run at the box office, and captured the imagination of younger viewers in particular. Nonetheless, if it had been released a decade earlier, it might have struggled to find an audience. One senses a shift of attitude among young Koreans these days. Faced with an ever more competitive and stress-filled lifestyle, in crowded cities with polluted air, and with career goals that often lead to frustrating dead ends, the emergence of a film with values so fundamentally different from the norm brought a breath of fresh air. In a word, this is the kind of film to make you quit your job, and leave the city behind.
Born in Incheon, Lim Soon-rye studied at Hanyang University and earned a masters degree in film studies at the University of Paris VIII. Her debut Three Friends (1996) screened at the Berlin, New Directors/New Films, Vancouver, Seattle, Melbourne, and Karlovy Vary film festivals. In 2001 she released her acclaimed second feature Waikiki Brothers and also shot a documentary about women filmmakers in Korea. In the years since she has been active both as a director and a producer, shooting a mixture of high-profile box office hits (Forever the Moment, The Whistleblower) and more intimate independent fare (Rolling Home with a Bull, Fly Penguin).
1996 – Three Friends
2001 – Waikiki Brothers
2001 – Keeping the Vision Alive
2008 – Forever the Moment
2009 – Fly Penguin
2010 – Rolling Home with a Bull
2011 – Sorry and Thank You
2013 – South Bound
2014 – The Whistleblower
2018 – Little Forest