Little Forest (South Korea, 2018) [NYAFF 2018]

Hae-won (Kim Tae-ri) returns from a dead-end job in Seoul to her home in a small rural town. Her mother is still missing, having upped and left one day while Hae-won was at school. Alone in a small farmhouse, she reconnects with her mother’s memory the only way she knows how – by cooking her recipes.

Yim Soon-rye’s new feature Little Forest is not exactly ‘slow cinema’ in the definitive sense, but it a remarkably relaxed and tranquil affair. As the viewer, what you get is almost entirely what the above synopsis suggests: Hae-won comes home, she makes an awful lot of delicious-looking food, and she reconnects with her two high school friends Jae-ha (Ryu Jun-yeol) and Eun-sook (Jin Ki-joo). The narrative has a precisely structured format as well: Hae-won arrives in the winter and lives in the town for an entire year – with about half an hour devoted to each season. This is not a film for tension or high drama. There are no twists or turns. What there is instead is a relaxed and contemplative showcase of farming, country living, and delicious-looking cuisine.

The film adapts Daisuke Igarashi’s popular manga and has already been adapted in Japan as a two-part feature. Having neither read the manga nor seen the earlier films, it is impossible for me to judge how this new version fares by comparison. Taken on its own merits it is an oddly addictive and pleasant experience. For one thing the film is very attractively framed and shot by Lee Seung-hoon in a full Cinemascope width and with a rich use of colour. The film took an entire year to shoot, with the cast and crew re-assembling each season to ensure a realistic change in climate. The production methods go a long way to ensuring the film’s success: there is already a strong sense of place from its location shoot, but the year-long production also gives the story a valuable sense of time. The story, and its characters with it, feels real. It is that rare kind of film: the one that you want to visit.

Kim Tae-ri is wonderful as Hae-won. She already made a tremendous impression in Park Chan-wook’s hit The Handmaiden (2016) and Jang Joon-hwan’s 1987: When the Day Comes (2017), and now follows up those performances with an equally impressive and strikingly different role. She has cemented her reputation of one of Korea’s finest young actors; I am keen to see where her career takes her next. As her close friends, Ryu Jun-yeol and Jim Ki-joo deliver excellent support. With a film this deliberately slight its success or failure hangs on the cast. They acquit themselves marvelously.

Particularly good is Moon So-ri, seen in a series of flashbacks as Hae-won’s eccentric but charming mother. She raises her daughter with a strange combination of food and lies, turning Hae-won’s childhood into less of a simple loving environment and more of a puzzle to be solved in retrospect. These flashbacks allow the film to break from its simple present-day narrative and give the film nice elements of depth and variety. Little Forest is a rare achievement. It is a film that manages to remain interesting and hugely entertaining, despite lacking significant conflict or a traditional antagonist. Achieving such a film requires a rare talent, and it appears to be one that Yim Soon-rye demonstrates with ease.

Everybody needs a film like Little Forest once in a while. It soothes and calms. It washes over you with an easy charm. More than anything, it makes you crave a simpler life – particularly one with such delicious-looking food.

Little Forest is showing on July 7 at the New York Asian Film Festival.