Korean Film Festival 2018 Review: Little Forest (South Korea, 2018)

A heart-warming and light-hearted film, Little Forest is a feast for the eyes and soul. A celebration of friendship, good food and the pleasures of daily life, Little Forest is sure to put a smile on your face, and your mind at ease.

Life in fast-paced Seoul is no longer working out for Hye-won (Kim Tae-ri): she’s failed her university teaching qualification exam, her relationship with her boyfriend is under strain, and long nights spent working part-time at a convenience store and eating fast food has long lost its appeal.

At a crossroads, Hye-won decides to return to the family home in her tiny rural hometown, famous for its apples and tomatoes. Over the course of a year, she reconnects with childhood friends Jae-ha (Ryu Jun-yeol) and Eun- sook (Jin Ki-joo), familiar neighbourhood elders and nature, reviving the house’s fields with lovingly planted crops and making delicious home-made meals. Most of all, she revisits her fraught and confused relationship with her absent mother (Moon So-ri), and her own troubles, which she has tried to escape from by fleeing the city.

A Korean remake of the Japanese duology (which was based upon the early 2000s manga series by Daisuke Igarashi), the release of Little Forest is timely. The popularity of the meokbang (online eating broadcasts) and aesthetic cooking genres (such as YouTube channel honeykki) in Korea, as well as the ongoing obsession with food media (think Chef’s Table and Midnight Diner) means that food-related films such as Little Forest will always find a devoted audience.

Meanwhile, the phrase sohwakhaeng (小確幸) has been gaining increasing traction. Translating to a ‘small but certain happiness’, it is a celebration of life’s simple pleasures – an Instagram search of the hashtag reveals images of simple meals, flowers, time spent with friends and loved ones. Korean TV broadcaster JTBC even developed the series Little House In The Forest earlier this year, which saw stars Park Shin-hye and So Ji-sub try to eke out a simpler existence inside a tiny house surrounded by nature. As the developed world becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the grind of modern life, Little Forest manages to capitalise on much of East Asia’s current state of mind by providing a sorely needed moment of quiet.

One of South Korea’s favourite actresses since her explosive debut in Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden in 2015, Kim Tae-ri brings her signature affable charm to the character of Hye-won, who is sometimes awkward and always relatable. Ryu Jun-yeol and Jin Ki-joo do a fantastic job as friends Jae-ha and Eun-sook, and together, the trio have a wonderfully warm chemistry. A friendship punctuated with sharp wit and much laughter, the highlights of the film are the moments they share, whether over homemade makgeolli (rice wine) or overly spicy, tear-inducing ddeokbokki (chewy rice cakes). These interactions invoke a yearning for one’s youth and the ones we hold most dear.

Director Yim Soon-rye’s decision to focus on the three protagonists, as well as the storyline surrounding Hye-won’s estranged mother, means that the food and landscape plays second fiddle in this adaptation. Unlike the two-part Japanese version, the Korean Little Forest squeezes Hye-won’s activities across the four seasons into the one film. This reduced runtime makes it less meditative, and more light-hearted and almost fluffy. It’s almost like easy listening, but in film version.

There is less time to focus on the dishes that Hye-won creates using the (literal) fruits of her labour – some highlights include sujebi in the freezing winter, rainbow layered rice cakes and deep-fried spring herbs – and the audience is mostly shown complete dishes, with most of the cooking process eliminated. Seeing as the straightforwardness of simple daily tasks is supposed to offer Hye-won respite from her former city life, it seems counterproductive to cut short an important part of her healing process. Perhaps devoting less time to shots of Hye-won’s lip-smacking eating would have been a good compromise. However, the increased interaction between characters means that the film manages to maintain its relaxed rhythm and not drag, a feat given its lack of dramatic plot twists or major conflict.

Breezy and calming, Little Forest is exactly what it promises – sanctuary and a place of rest. Populated with lovable characters (including a cute dog!), mouthwatering food and idyllic scenery, it is a film which epitomises what cinema is meant to do – transport the viewer away from real life, however momentarily.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Little Forest is being shown as part of the Korean Film Festival in Australia. It will be screening in Brisbane on 15 August and Melbourne on 8 September.

For more information and to book visit KOFFIA’s website here.