Director: Yim Soonrye
In a nutshell: a lyrical ode to the charms of the Korean countryside and a mother-daughter relationship.
It begins with young Hye-won (Kim Taeri) entering an old Korean country home (Hanok) in the middle of winter. She is hungry and trying to scrape together some food from the scraps left in the kitchen. It’s a beautiful wooden house with an open courtyard and a traditional tiled roof. As the seasons change we see the food being harvested from a nearby farm. This is the Little Forest of the title, an incredible rural landscape where Hyewon learns how to live in the country, becoming self-sufficient.
As she learns to fend for herself with only a Jindo dog for company she starts to remember the occasions when her mother cooked for her. Her mother is played by Moon So-ri, one of the veterans of modern Korean cinema. Her early roles include some of the most celebrated Korean films – “Peppermint Candy” and “Oasis.” By now she is in her forties, a time when many Korean actresses often quit the business. But in this film she is positively radiant as a loving, earth mother type who can make the most incredible Korean food from anything she can find growing on her small farm. Her previous role was in The Handmaiden, a very different and much darker film that also happened to feature Kim Taeri.
Many Korean movies take place in the busy urban centres of Seoul and Busan. This is one of the few recent films I have watched to be set almost entirely in the countryside. The young Hye-won is soon joined on the small farm by two city friends Jae-ha and Eun-sook. It’s soon clear that life in the city is no picnic and we see them happily leave their unfulfilling jobs to work with their friend. As so many young Koreans are having difficulty finding any of the main necessities of life (family, work, a house), they are moving to the countryside, where – although life is much slower – it is much easier to live a simple yet content life.
It’s where they can find the peace they need. The landscapes are beautiful and the night stars are crystal clear. The changing seasons are demarcated by the different food the characters eat: melons in summer, apples in autumn and dried persimmons in winter. Seen in close-up, it looks absolutely mouthwatering. There is a large red-bean rice cake that Hye-won lovingly makes at the beginning of the year. An earlier meal of hand torn soup noodles (sujebi) looks incredible too. There’s a crème brulee that she makes for her friend that shatters crisply, and leads to another mother and daughter scene where she remembers when her mother made the same dish for her.
This is not food porn (how I hate that term!). It’s done because Hyewon wants to recreate the dishes her mother lovingly made for her. The reason the food is given so many close-ups is, I think, due to the importance it has for the characters themselves. It’s also because she watched her mother that she is able to cook with such skill and finesse.
I was waiting for someone to eat Korean barbecue but there’s no meat here, which is nothing short of incredible for a country that seems to ind a way to eat any living creature they can find. The only animals we see are a white dog (a Jindo puppy) and a chicken, which lays an egg which is used to make an Okonomiyaki pancake.
The film leads to no particular grand climax, and the relaxed pace might lead some viewers to start to lose interest. But when the film reaches the final winter scene, the result is heartwarming.