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[Herald Review] Sanctuary in the ‘Little Forest’

Yim Soon-rye’s feel-good flick about a young woman’s return to farmland is cozy, relaxing and satisfying

The fact that “healing” -- referring, in Korea, to the process of relieving stress with relaxing activities -- was the key word of 2010s shows Koreans’ frustrations with the hectic city life. In a county where over half of the population is concentrated in the metropolitan area, farming has become something of a symbol for the laid-back life that city-dwellers dream of.

Director Yim Soon-rye’s “Little Forest” follows a young woman typically deemed a failure -- she fails to land a teaching job, and has a difficult love life -- who seeks solace in a tiny rural village where she was brought up. 

“Little Forest” (Megabox Plus M)
“Little Forest” (Megabox Plus M)

“The way we all live in the city is very similar. We get to work early in the morning, return home late, and are tired all the time. When I look at the people in the subway, they look all exhausted,” Yim said about her movie during a premiere for the movie on Tuesday. “I think looking at the people who live differently can provoke some thoughts.”

What thoughts are those? Yim says she is leaving it up to the audience.

Viewers are taken to the beautiful village of Uiseong, North Gyeongsang Province, where the camera follows the protagonist Hye-won -- Kim Tae-ri -- on a bicycle ride across town. The location is as important a character as any of the human actors. The change of seasons, the richness of nature, and its relaxing mood are captured perfectly on-screen.

The plot involves Hye-won returning to her hometown, to the house where her mother left her when she was 18. Along with her friends Jae-ha and Eun-sook, played by Ryu Jun-yeol and Jin Ki-joo, she adjusts to the life in the country.

And that’s it. No need to sound the spoiler alert, though, because the propelling the plot is not what makes this movie valuable.

“Little Forest” (Megabox Plus M)
“Little Forest” (Megabox Plus M)

Hye-won cooks and prepares everything, from rice cakes and pasta to even home-brewed makgeolli -- a Korean traditional alcoholic beverage. The way the camera captures the images and sounds of the freshly picked fruits and vegetables being transformed into gourmet meals is a feast for the eyes.

The cooking, the farming, the bickering with her loving but annoying aunt and life in general are the flick’s main features. On paper it sounds like a snore-fest, and at first that is what it seems, in the eyes of those numb from nonstop stimulus of the city life. But the mouth-watering cooking scenes, a simple life devoid of stress from dealing with people, and a drink with friends after an honest day’s work are vicarious pleasures.

Kim, who holds up the “plot” by herself, is a gem in this film. She sheds any of the residual sassy image she might have left over from “The Handmaiden” to become a wholesome, good natured college kid. Her presence and the chemistry with her friends pumps fun into what could have been a mundane film about country life.

The trio is truly loveable in how they sometimes annoy but genuinely care about each other. Their problems seem very minor, but that is the beauty of it: you can see that everything is going to work out in the end.

The way Yim concocts the chemistry between Hye-won and her mother -- played by Moon So-ri -- is impressive. They do not share a single scene together -- aside from the flashbacks with the mother and Hye-won -- and never even say “I love you,” but the bond and affection between them is apparent in Hye-won walking in her mother’s steps, and ultimately understanding her.

It is a small film with no villain, no real tension, and no real conflict, either. But do we really need more tension in our lives? City-dwellers spend thousands of dollars to “enjoy” life, but Yim shows us that maybe letting go can give us exactly what we’ve wanted.

If you are looking for a film that feels like lying on a river bank without a care in the world, “Little Forest” is for you.

“Little Forest” opens in theaters next Wednesday.

By Yoon Min-sik