LITTLE FOREST Director Yim Soon-rye Discusses Traditional Korean Food, Challenges as a Female Director, and the Future of Korean Cinema
A hush fell over the interview room as everyone stood up to bow respectfully to our guest. Director Yim Soon-rye strolled into the room, greeting everyone. Her quiet demeanour and small stature was accompanied by a clear and confident voice, affirming her aura as one of Korea’s notable female directors with a whole body of work to her name. As part of the Korean Film Festival in Singapore 2019, organised by the Embassy of Korea, director Yim Soon-rye attended the Opening Night where her film, Little Forest (2018), started off the festival.
The Korean Film Festival in Singapore is in its 13th iteration this year, an annual event much anticipated by both the Korean community in Singapore and local audience alike. Working closely with the Singapore Film Society, this year’s run sees a carefully curated lineup – from Palme d’Or Winner Parasite to a delightful children’s animation Leafie, A Hen into a Wild – that aims to showcase the broad range of Korean cinema.
The opening film Little Forest follows the life of a young woman who, frustrated of city life, drops everything to move back to the village she grew up in. (Take a look at our review here!) During the opening night, director Yim Soon-rye introduced her latest work as a gift to the young people today who are caught up in the hectic pace of the concrete jungle. We managed to arrange an interview with Director Yim to ask her more about Little Forest, her future projects, and what she thinks about the future of Korean cinema.
(Please take note that there will be mild spoilers for Little Forest in the interview!)
Little Forest is adapted from a Japanese manga. Is there something about the story that resonates with you? Or why was it a story that you sought to tell?
You are right that Little Forest is a screen adaptation of the Japanese manga, but I saw the Japanese version of Little Forest film first. And when I saw the film version from Japan, what impressed me most was how nature has that power to give comfort to the people. It has a different kind of ‘breathing’ and it gives people the opportunity to learn different ways of breathing.
My decision to add a Korean flavour to the movie stems from my desire to provide an opportunity, especially for the young people in Korea who are so exhausted and worn-out and exposed to the cut-throat competition in Korean society. And therefore I thought, if I make a Korean film of Little Forest, it could maybe provide them the opportunity for slow observation, to find out what’s important to them, giving them the opportunity to unwind a little amidst all the competition they have to face.
What did you hope to offer from your own take that is different from the manga and the Japanese film?
My approach consisted of some ways that could strike a chord with the Korean audience. For example, in the Japanese version, the mother leaves early. But in Korean context, it would seem very awkward if a mother abandons her daughter in a rural village. So I delayed the time of departure of the mother. I made it so that she leaves her daughter after her daughter passed her college entrance exam. So it would make more sense to the Korean audience.
Secondly, in the Korean context, it would not be very safe for a young widow, or a woman, to live all by herself in a rural village, and that goes the same for Hye-won, the protagonist. So what I did was that we had a dog that lives with her and an aunty who lives nearby and visits her often to check on her. And also, we had the two friends who visit her very often too. So as to reassure the audience that she is safe, albeit being alone in the rural village.
In the Japanese version, the protagonist assimilates with the villages and she stays there permanently. But in the Korean version, I wanted to make it open-ended. And also in the Japanese version, there was a particular focus on the food itself, on the process of cooking the food, and on the process of farming. But in the Korean version, I wanted the food preparation to take on a meaning of bringing back all the memories of the mother. I also wanted to inject more emphasis on the relationships between people.
One striking difference between the Japanese Little Forest and the Korean Little Forest is that the Japanese version was split into two different parts. But the Korean version, we only have one part where we portray all four seasons. It was structured in that way because I felt that maybe the Korean audience will be less patient and would not have the time. (laughs) They would want to see everything at one go. This goes to show how time is so precious in Korean society compared to Japanese society, where they allow you to digest and slowly observe what’s being shown on the screen.
Since Little Forest revolves heavily around friendship and kinship, how was the casting process like? Were there certain qualities that you looked for?
For the casting of the protagonist, Kim Tae-ri, she appears in the movie from beginning to end. She’s the only protagonist who’s there all the time. And so I wanted to find an actress in her 20s who’s very naturally appealing, should not be artificial, beautiful and I wanted someone that the audience would not get tired of seeing while they’re watching the movie. So Kim Tae-ri was immediately on my mind when I thought about directing this movie. At that time, however, she had just finished filming The Handmaiden (2016) and she was in the spotlight, so I wasn’t sure if she was willing to take this role. However, she accepted and I was very happy about that.
For the second character, Ryu Jun-yeol, who played Jae-ha in the movie, I wanted someone who looked like he’s physically fit for farming and would blend with the village way of life. And should also have that naivety that you can only get from someone living in the rural village. But considering his fame, it would have been understandable if he had rejected the part. But I was very happy when he accepted our offer.
I guess the most difficult part to cast was Eun-sook’s part, which was played by Jin Ki-joo. She’s a complete rookie, but I was very happy because it turned out to be a successful casting. I wanted someone who could have perfect chemistry with the other two because they appear as best friends since primary school. And considering how famous Kim Tae-ri and Ryu Jun-yeol are, it was very difficult to find someone who could blend with them and have that perfect chemistry with the two of them. And also Tae-ri and Jun-yeol’s characters can be a little too serious, so I wanted someone who’s very lovingly light. And I thought that Jin Ki-joo was perfect for that role.
As for Moon So-ri who played the mother’s part, she exceeded my expectations. In hindsight, I believe that no one could have played the role of the mother better than she did. I wanted someone who’s whimsical, but also very deep, and at the same time, very independent to play this role. And I think she did a wonderful job at playing the mother’s role.
Many audience members have described the film as a “delicious” one. You mentioned that you tried to stray away from the focus on food and have it evoke memories instead. But different types of Korean and fusion food are showcased in Little Forest. Was there a reason why you didn’t choose to just portray Korean food?
Well, we have 16 different dishes that appeared throughout the movie. And most are Korean dishes, but we have some fusion and even 2 Japanese dishes, which are okonomiyaki and sweetened chestnuts. There was a request from the copyright holder, from the Japanese side, to include maybe a few Japanese dishes, so I accepted their suggestion and added something that would appeal to the Korean audience.
I put in the pasta and creme brulee on purpose because at the time during the planning of the movie, my main target was going to be women in their 20s and 30s. So instead of putting all very traditional Korean dishes like the fermented soy bean hotpot, I intentionally tossed in some modern dishes so that it would keep the interest of my target audience.
And also, other foods that I intentionally put into the movie was the Korean rice cake and makgeolli (sparkling rice wine), because based on my recollection, we used to make those at home. Our mothers and grandmothers used to make those at home when I was little. But I think, with the modern generation in Korea right now, they can barely think of making these kinds of traditional food at home. So I wanted to give them an opportunity to realise that this is something I can also make at home.
To date, you’ve directed 10 movies, including Little Forest. Is there a common thread that runs through all of them?
I think that usually the characters that appear in my movies are those that are not in the mainstream. Those who are off-track from the mainstream, or those very average and normal person whom you can see next door. So I think I gravitate to those people and those characters.
How much do you think you have changed from, or remained true to, your earlier years as a director?
Yes, I’ve changed compared to the earlier years. For Three Friends (1996) and Waikiki Brothers (2001), which I directed earlier in my career, they were rendered through my self-consciousness as a writer. So they may be less commercially appealing because the camera doesn’t move much, and there isn’t much portrayal of the actors and actresses’ faces, and I also casted part-time actors and actresses in these movies.
But Forever the Moment (2008), for me, was the first commercially successful movie. And from then onwards, I guess I tried to put in effects and devices that could be more appealing to the larger, wider audience, that could strike a chord with them. So there’s more camera movement, the camera actually spends some time to portray the faces of the actors and actresses. There are more musical scores and there’s more star casting and more sense of humour. All of which I believe helped me to reach out to the audience.
Could you give us some teasers about future projects? What kind of projects do you hope to be able to work on in the future?
I am actually planning 3 projects for the future. The first one that is coming out, the earliest, is the movie called Negotiator. About 12 years ago, there was a missionary who went to Afghanistan to proselytize but was kidnapped by the Talibans. This movie Negotiator is going to be about a diplomat who goes to Afghanistan in the hopes of resolving this incident.
My second project that will be coming up is going to be about a very famous Korean painter called Lee Jung-seob. And the third one that I am planning right now is a movie about a dolphin that has been released to the sea after growing up in a zoo. And this stems from my personal passion and interest for animals.
Being one of the few female directors in Korean cinema, what were the challenges that you have faced in your experience?
I guess personally, as for me, I was one of the luckiest film directors. Because for me, the process of working in Korean cinema and being a female director was not that tough. In the past, the only way to become a movie director in Korea was through an apprenticeship. But in the past, the problem was that a lot of potential female directors were not considered to be included in an apprenticeship.
Then mid-1990s, the process and routes of becoming a film director began to diversify. For example, if you studied filmmaking overseas than you could come back to Korea and start making your own films. Or you could also debut by producing short films. That was what I did. I debuted by winning an award from the Seoul Short Film Competition. So when I was just starting out as a film director, the industry was going through a lot of changes. So I don’t think that I had any particular challenges that I had to resolve.
Having said that, working in the film industry as a woman and as a director is not an easy task. And I believe this goes the same for not only Singapore and Korea, but also in Hollywood and other European countries. In the Korean film industry, the number of female directors is less than 10% of all film directors. That says a lot about the position that female film directors are in.
In the past, most of the challenges that female film directors in Korea faced were that they had to be physically strong enough to endure the harsh process of making a film. Secondly, sometimes they were rejected from taking on main roles as a director. Or sometimes, the staff would not be as trusting when the film directors want to demonstrate charismatic leadership on the set. So these are some of the challenges that female directors in Korea faced in the past.
Now, I am observing that the challenges have become different. For example, female directors may not have as much access to investment, production, or distribution opportunities, as male directors in Korea have. Also, when we are planning to produce a blockbuster film, ROI (Return on Investment) becomes very important. For quick ROI, investors would opt for more action-oriented films or genres that display a lot of violence that would attract quick returns for their investments. And oftentimes, female directors are sort of isolated from these particular genres.
In your opinion, what should be next for Korean cinema? Where do you envision Korean cinema to be in ten years’ time?
I can say that right now the Korean film industry is at risk. And I say that because of the way investment and distribution system is structured in the Korean film industry, most of the distribution and investment goes into commercially viable films that have high commercial potential. And so, with that structure, movies that have less commercial characteristics and those that are produced by independent, more art-focused movies, tend to get less access to distribution and investment. And also, there are big changes occurring, surrounding platforms like Netflix. So we are at a watershed right now.
In the next ten years, the Korean film industry will still remain strong. And that’s because a lot of the filmmakers are very creative. And secondly, the Korean society itself is very dynamic, very vibrant. Therefore, we have so many potential topics that we can talk about in our movies. And thirdly, the number of movies that one person watches, so per capita, in Korea is the largest in the world. Meaning that Koeans are very passionate about movies and they love to watch movies. So these would be some of the factors that will uphold the Korean movie industry in the next ten years.
About Korean Film Festival 2019
Organised by the The Embassy of the Republic of Korea with support from the Singapore Film Society, the 2019 Korea Film Festival is one of the main highlights of the Korea Festival and is a perennial favourite amongst locals and resident Koreans. This year’s line-up, featuring eight critically-acclaimed award-winning and nominated films from various national and international film festivals, will be screened over two weekends from 18 to 27 October.
All public screenings of the 2019 Korean Film Festival line up will be of free admission. More information can be found at https://www.koreanfilmfestivalsg.com/. However, due to the popularity of the festival, all screenings have been fully booked at this time. Do keep a look out for next year’s run though!