Little Forest (Liteul poreseuteu)

Korea (2018) Dir. Yim Soon-rye

It never fails to amuse me when people return home after being away, that their usual response to the question “What do you miss the most?” is “My mum’s cooking” – not that I can blame them! For the protagonist of this story, this is very true except she is more than capable of making these meals herself.

Song Hye-Won (Kim Tae-Ri) left her rural village home to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher in Seoul, but having failed her exams, split with her boyfriend and found city life far too cloying for her, Hye-Won decides to head home. Arriving in winter, Hye-Won finds the house empty, her mother nowhere to be found and barely any food, but Hye-Won is her mother’s daughter and manages to make do with what is around the house.

Hye-Won quickly adapts to this lifestyle and takes up the mantle of growing crops and vegetables and the general upkeep of the house. Reconnecting with her oldest friends, farmer Jae-ha (Ryoo Joon-Yeol) and bank clerk Eun-Sook (Jin Ki-Joo), Hye-Won dives deep into the various dishes they used to enjoy made by her mother and finds herself with a greater appreciation for a self-sufficient country life.  

For a film that looks and feels resolutely Korean it is quite surprising to learn that Little Forest is in fact based on a Japanese manga by Daisuke Igarashi, which was also adapted for the screen in two parts. I’ve not read the manga or seen the Japanese films but I am assuming it is because certain parts of Asia are culturally similar this relocation from Japan to Korea is efficaciously smooth.

The story is about finding one’s place in life and realising that after trying many different things it might have been in front of you all the time. It is also about appreciating the connections you grew up with and understanding what they mean and why they are so special – in this case, Hye-Won and her mother (Moon So-ri), as shown in flashbacks.

In Hye-Won’s eyes, her mother was not just her best friend, confidante, protector, and source of comfort, she was a magician who could make extraordinary meals, soups, and puddings that not only tasted great but also made all her problems go away. Through watching, helping, and osmosis Hye-Won replicates these dishes for herself and her friends, a cathartic process that offers a window to the wonders of nature, whilst giving Hye-Won cause for reflection.

Her mother’s absence isn’t explained until the end, hitherto a mystery in a letter she left for Hye-Won which she doesn’t understand. This bitter disappointment comes after the disastrous life in Seoul and does little to provide the comfort Hye-Won sought. But, as soon s she starts making the old dishes her mother used to make, the pain subsides and Hye-won is too busy to think about her failures.

She’s actually not alone – Jae-ha also left the village to work in Seoul, ending up in an office job but he quit after his boss berated him, realising that answering to jumped up corporate bullies wasn’t his idea of a fulfilling life and returned to the family farm. Eun-Sook is the only one of the trio who never left the village, but finds her bank job a slog.

Eun-Sook might have the least horticultural inclination of the three but she pitches in when she can despite being far less adept at it, suggesting farming life is inherent in this community. At least Eun-Sook appreciates the food Hye-Won cooks, meaning her palate hasn’t been spoiled by the processed food found in town.

Anyone would be forgiven for thinking the entire purpose of this film is to encourage people to ditch city life and move to the country and become farmers. Truth be told, director Yim Soon-rye does a very persuasive job in painting rural life with its gentle pace, verdant serenity, and industriousness in self-sufficiency that affords fruit and veg to be practically on tap all year round.

Hye-Won was only planning to stay for a few weeks – something Jae-ha tried to thwart by giving Hye-won a puppy to look after so she’ll stay longer – but winter turns to spring, spring turns to summer and Seoul becomes a distant memory. Maybe there is something therapeutic and rehabilitating about the country that helps put problems and gripes into perspective, not that it doesn’t come with its own issues.

It is said the original manga focuses more on the cooking with each chapter built around a specific recipe, hardly ideal for a 103-minute film, but Yim makes each meal as pertinent to the story as the slice-of-life narrative, filming the mixing bowl or frying pan from above to show the ingredients being fused together, while Hye-Won narrates the finer details of their relevance.

Dishes like cabbage pancake or dough soup are created before our eyes along with truly leftfield garnishes like shaved tree bark to add extra flavour. It sounds revolting but by all accounts, this is a perfectly palatable delicacy in Korea. Yim even makes the backbreaking and tiring labour of farming, and crops and fruit growing a wholly rewarding day’s work, making even the slightest shooting leaf a miracle.

Usually when Moon So-ri is in a film, she tends to own it and whilst she creates an ethereal aura for the absent mother, she can’t steal this film from Kim Tae-Ri. Following an outstanding debut in Park Chan-Wook’s steamy drama The Handmaiden this is a huge change of direction for Kim, yet she still captivates with her natural charisma and endearing innocence but in a more down-to-earth scenario as Hye-Won.

That there is no heavy drama in Little Forest is irrelevant – the struggles are real and relatable to anyone stuck in a dead end job or simply lost in life. The unhurried pace and laconic style of this paean to simplicity and nature is comforting and welcoming, all part of its effortless charm.