Director – Kim Cho-hee – 2016 – South Korea – 29m
A woman descends from the heavens in search of a mate, but lands in a forest where the pickings are slim – part of a strand of films celebrating actress Youn Yuh-jung at LKFF, the London Korean Film Festival which runs in cinemas from Thursday, November 4th to Friday, November 19th
The source of this plot is a folk tale known as The Fairy And The Woodcutter or The Heavenly Maiden And The Woodcutter. There seem to be a number of variants of the story – a good, much longer summation can be found here – but, broadly speaking, it concerns a woodcutter so poor that no woman will marry him. He lives alone with his mother. One day, he hides a deer from a hunter and in return, the deer offers to grant him a wish. He wishes to be married. The deer tells him of a pool to which beautiful maidens descend from the heavens to bathe. If he steals the clothes of one, she’ll be unable to return and he’ll be able to make her his wife. He must not, however, return her clothes until she has birthed three children, otherwise she will use her clothes to fly back to the heavens.
Clearly, there’s something in the (patriarchal?) Oriental way of thinking about women as otherworldly creatures from the moon (see also Over The Moon, Glen Keane, John Kahrs, 2020).
Director-screenwriter Kim, a former assistant to Hong Sang-soo, who would go on to make Lucky Chan-sil (2019) with much encouragement from Youn, writes a simple script then directs with considerable invention. She swaps the genders changing the man unable to find a wife into a woman unable to find a husband, then for good measure doubles their number into two women seeking husbands. In casting, she makes the first woman to appear the almost seventy-year-old Youn yuh-jung, in one fell swoop addressing a problem about female casting as old as the art of the cinema (and possibly much older), that women cast in romantic roles are generally both young and (conforming to a widespread interpretation of) beautiful. (Personally, I think Youn looks great at that age, but that’s me.)
In lieu of expensive special effects for travel from the heavens, Soon-sim (Youn) first appears in a small pipeline tunnel at the filming location to be joined by younger maiden Dal-rae (Yung Yu-mi). After hesitantly conversing in broken English, Soon-sim is delighted to find her companion speaks Korean, so they stick to that language for the rest of the film.
The heavenly and Western-named men Richard (Ahn Jae-hong) and Charles appear to be guests at a local spa, their clothes consisting of bathrobes branded with the logo of the spa hotel at which they are staying. The deer could have been a CGI animated animal but Kim limits her special effects to putting antler headgear on actor Bae Yoo-ram playing the deer. As Jean Cocteau proved time and again in, for example, La Belle Et La Bête (1946) or Orphée (1950), such cheap and simple devices will work perfectly well on the screen if the actors perform as if these things are what they are supposed to represent. The same is true of the 1960s and 1970s episodes of legendary UK TV series Dr. Who. Photorealism in the cinema is a form of tyranny, especially in these “post-Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993), you can do anything with CGI effects” days, so it’s always striking when fantasy films stand up against that widespread tradition and make our suspension of disbelief work without it.
In this version, the spell of the mens’ love for their wives is broken when the huntsman in a later pursuit kills the deer. That allows Youn a wonderful rant against her husband for no longer finding her beautiful because she isn’t the young thing he’d seen whilst bewitched and happily married. It may only be a 29 minute short, but this immensely likeable little film oozes charm. I was expecting a slight effort not to be taken too seriously, but as it turns out this is a good deal better than that and an absolute delight.
Ladies Of The Forest played as part of a strand of films celebrating actress Youn Yuh-jung at LKFF, the London Korean Film Festival which runs in cinemas from Thursday, November 4th to Friday, November 19th.
LKFF 2021 Trailer:
Youn Yuh-jung films currently or recently available…
Korean Film Archive YouTube Channel (free): Insect Woman (Kim Ki-young, 1972)
BFI Player: The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo, 2010)
Curzon Home Cinema: Beasts Clawing At Straws (Kim Yong-hoon, 2020)