"Do you live around here?"
"I have no idea... I have to get to the market, but I think I came the wrong way."


Little seven-year-old Bory (Kim Soo-an) watches and listens intently as her family discusses preparations for her grandfather's memorial service. When her mother suddenly realises in horror that she has forgotten to buy bean sprouts for the gathering, one of her relatives suggests Bory should be sent to fetch them - the thought of which makes the child almost physically jump for joy - but her mum instantly dismisses the idea claiming that she is still far too young to go on such a journey alone.
However, the decision has already been made in our little explorer's mind and on being sent to her room to play she instead grabs her purse and bag in preparation for her important 'mission'.
Though Bory has no idea where to actually buy bean sprouts, she knows it's nonetheless up to her to succeed in her quest and save the day, single-handedly...


For a time, the gentler side of Korean Cinema regularly focused its gaze on heartfelt and uplifting stories of young children with a number ('The Way Home'; 'Treeless Mountain'; 'Lovable', to name but three) quickly becoming considered classic examples not only of exemplary Korean filmmaking as a whole but also of specific deeply unique and individual insights into the hopes, fears, needs and desires of the young in Korean society.
However, in the last couple of years the appearance of such beautiful tales has largely been supplanted by big budget blockbusters, often with fairly hard-hitting narratives in which children are mentioned either in little more than a passing manner as part of a familial unit or even - as has been the case on more than one occasion - as the innocent victims of sexual crimes.
That fact, in essence, directly led to Yoon Ga-eun's decision to create short film 'Sprout' as a Korea National University of Arts 'graduation project'; the warmth, depth and meaning with which she so successfully imbues this gentle, sweet and simple tale clearly showing her sheer talent as a director and storyteller at the same time as deftly underlining how beautiful Korean cinema truly can be.


'Sprout' begins with a small scene in which our little heroine watches and listens intently as family members chat about the ongoing preparations for the memorial service and while the almost exclusive focusing of the camera full screen on Bory's face echoes the framing used at the beginning of 'Treeless Mountain' Yoon Ga-eun surpasses even Kim So-yong's 2008 study of youth by enabling viewers to almost fully understand everything that's important to this young girl, in the space of little more than a moment:
With every comment made by an adult family member, Bory turns her head to focus on the person in question, face on (laughing when they laugh, showing concern when they cite problems, and giving little vocal statements of surprise or excitement as she sees fit); her desire to be considered an active member of the conversation being underlined at every literal turn. So much so, in fact, that by the time it's suggested that perhaps she could go to buy the forgotten bean sprouts we know her forthcoming 'exploration' has already been fully decided in her mind.
Bory's 'watching, assessing and deciding' is repeatedly referenced throughout her entire 'bean sprout outing'; her regular exclamations of happiness, surprise and even shock showing her innocence, curiosity and intelligence combined - each being suffixed with a wide, and empathy-building smile - and while the specific incidents that pepper her 'mission' to the market would be without question considered tiny by any adult undertaking such a journey their amplified importance and magnified size to this tiny girl stepping out on her own for the very first time are blatantly clear to see. From her purposeful striding down the road at the start of her expedition, eating bread and singing 'Bean sprouts, sprouts, sprouts, sprouts' as she goes; to her problems getting past a dog on a narrow street; to her fight with a girl whose ice cream she's inadvertently eaten; and even her accidental drinking of rice wine (complete with her resultant 'drunken' song and dance), every single event and interaction is given the cinematic gravity required by Bory's own perception of it to the extent that as her spree continues we not only follow in her wake but actually travel with her seeing the world through her excited eyes and from her diminutive height, in the process.


Not only that, but Yoon Ga-eun's decision to base the narrative of 'Sprout' around the memorial service of Bory's grandfather gently and subtly adds a fitting spiritual aspect to proceedings, beautifully reinforcing the widely held belief that our ancestors guide our journeys through life from youth to adulthood and, specifically in Bory's case, allowing her to ultimately know something that none of the 'knowledgeable' adults of her family do... a thought you can almost guarantee would make our little heroine give that now familiar wide and joyous grin, once more.

Park Chul-soon's 2011 film 'Lovable' had the alternative title of 'The Lovely Child' and that very title could just as easily be used to sum up both the utterly superlative short film 'Sprout' and indeed the character of Bory herself. I've talked at length on numerous occasions about the sheer quality of performances regularly given by children in Korean films and those statements fit Kim Soo-an's portrayal of Bory to a tee. Perfect and utterly 'real' throughout, Kim Soo-an's exemplary performance not only shows she is able to hold an entire film on her young shoulders but also with it she adds massively to this already superb and nuanced short. Many of you reading this will have seen Kim Soo-an's acting talent on clear display in 2013's 'Hide and Seek' but it is her performance in 'Sprout' that will both stay with you and blow you away.


The warmth, depth and meaning with which Yoon Ga-eun so successfully infuses this gentle, sweet and simple tale not only clearly shows her sheer talent as a director and storyteller but also deftly underlines how beautiful Korean cinema truly can be.

'Sprout' (콩나물 / 2013 / directed by Yoon Ga-eun)
Duration: 20 minutes


I'd sincerely like to thank the Korean Film Council and the Korea National University of Arts for allowing me repeated access to 'Sprout' for the purpose of this review.

All images © KOFIC, Korea National University of Arts, Yoon Ga-eun
Review © Paul Quinn