Sunday, September 02, 2018

Korean Cinema ’18: Little Forest

You have to give Hye-won credit, because she works awfully hard for a Millennial, especially considering she does not have a regular job. She has come home to regroup after going through a difficult patch at her Seoul University. She says it is temporary, but she sure looks to her village friends like she is making like the ants rather than the grasshopper. She also cooks a lot of comfort food, but the results are often bittersweet in Yim Soon-rye’s Little Forest (trailer here), which screens during the Honolulu Museum of Art’s annual Korean Cinema series.

Hye-won’s boyfriend passed the big grad school test, but she did not. Even before that, she had misgivings about their relationship, so she has returned to her home in the countryside to re-examine her life. She knows she will have the house to herself, because her mother left on her own mysterious journey of personal discovery, shortly after her college acceptance. It totally baffled Hye-won at the time, but maybe she will gain some perspective on their relationship as she cooks her mother’s recipes and performs all the chores necessary to maintain their vegetable plots and modest crops for the coming year.

Naturally, Hye-won spends a lot of time with her former bestie Eun-sook and their platonic guy pal, Jae-ha, because they are the best looking people in town. It turns out he was quite a late bloomer, but Eun-sook is determined to make up for lost time pursuing him. She doesn’t want any competition from Hye-won, who assures her she isn’t interested, but the problem is—she really doesn’t know what she wants. Making her mother’s beloved recipes is often a double-edged sword. They are soothing to eat, but they remind her of her mother’s absence.

Everything about Little Forest (adapted by Hwang Seong-gu from Daisuke Igarashi’s Japanese manga) looks deceptively simply, but is actually quite complex when you give it the deep-dive attention it deserves. That starts with the structure of the film, built around the four seasons, each of which somewhat mirror Hye-won’s state of mind, but never with rigid straightjacket conformity. Likewise, her relationships with the sometimes catty Eun-sook and diamond-in-the-rough Jae-ha defy typical teen/new adult stereotypes.

Kim Tae-ri is terrific as Hye-won, in an often silent, but highly expressive performance. Her hands say more than enough as they knead dough or chop vegetables. Jin Ki-joo is also rather marvelous as Eun-sook. Frankly, it is a rather challenging role to play, because her shortcomings are immediately apparent, but Jin brings out better qualities over time, in quite a compelling manner. Plus, there is a dog named Fivo who will charm the pants off dog-lovers.

Any film that sets such an unhurried pace risks stalling out completely, but Yim has a nice touch with meditative films (such as the criminally under-appreciated Rolling Home with a Bull). She is also immeasurably helped by Kim, who truly lights up the screen (of course, Fivo holds up his end, as well). Perhaps even more importantly, cinematographer Lee Seung-hoon makes all the food and the South Gyeongsang backdrops absolutely sparkle (because, if they didn’t look so appealing, the film wouldn’t make any sense). Very highly recommended for fans of culinary films and back-to-the-earth movies, Little Forest screens this afternoon (9/2) and Tuesday (the 18th), as part of this year’s Korean Cinema at the Honolulu Museum of Art.