The London Korean Film Festival came to HOME Manchester, showing two films approaching life in Seoul from different angles. The first, Microhabitat (소공녀), feature debut of director Jeon Go-Woon (전고운), depicts a young woman pushed out of society by a rapidly overheating housing market.
Problem question: Rent goes up. Cigarette prices go up. Which do you drop? To Miso (Esom, 이솜), the answer is clear, and she moves out immediately. This is a ridiculous satire played straight, kept together by a snappy script and nonchalant performance by Esom, strong-willed yet non-confrontational.
“Let’s get the band back together! Great idea, we can stay up all night drinking whisky, like the old days!” Only, people have changed: staying with them one by one, Miso sees the effects of the pressures people face to have their own space in the city. The obsessive professional, the overwhelmed housewife, the mourning divorcee: Miso is the only one unchanged, a stable point of comparison.
While making no bones about the pressures of poverty, Microhabitat is never arduous, remaining gently satirical throughout. There is genuine emotion, particularly with her boyfriend, but the overall tone is subdued; in fact, the only time this is broken lends extra hilarity to Miso’s fever-dream panic over an unexpected marriage proposal from old friend Kim Rok-Yi (Choi Deok-Moon, 최덕문).
Whisky and cigarettes are Miso’s adulthood, and this is the tale of the relentless sacrifice she must make to have them. Accept the absurd premise and there is a real message: city living can be terrifying.
Little Forest (리틀포레스트), the second film, is director Yim Soon-Rye’s (임순례) adaptation of the tranquil Japanese original Little Forest (リトル・フォレスト) films and manga by Daisuke Igarashi (五十嵐大介). This film approaches Seoul as a hectic, stifling city, in which a young girl’s life crumbles.
Hye-Won (Kim Tae-Ri, 김태리) is hungry. Very hungry. So hungry that she leaves her new bustling city of work and study and returns home to the countryside in search of childhood food. However, returning forces her to confront her mother’s (Moon So-Ri, 문소리) abrupt disappearance; as she cooks her old recipes, memories come flooding back.
Back home, Hye-Won reunites with old friends: Eun-Sook (Jin Ki-Joo, 진기주) never reached her city dream, whereas Jae-Ha (Ryoo Joon-Yeol, 류준열) decided to return and continue his family farm. Friendships grow over beautiful meals Hye Won prepares, a genuine joy to experience.
The romantic angle, though initiated, is never developed, and we only catch glimpses of the mother-daughter conflict through Hye-Won’s memories. Some might be left wanting more, but perhaps this serves only to enhance the film’s calmness, avoiding melodrama in a rather un-Korean fashion.
Kim Tae-Ri shines in the leading role, effortlessly encapsulating the minimalist, measured tone of the film. Even the central theme of food preparation is approached with restraint, gorgeously yet unfussily shot, depicting enjoyment alongside ruminations of a lost maternal bond. This is only matched by stunning images of idyllic Korean countryside moving slowly through the seasons.
These two films deserve a proper UK release.