HOUSE OF HUMMINGBIRD (2018)
A middle schooler attempts to find herself amidst a toxic family life and emotional growing pains in this masterfully crafted and contemplative coming-of-age drama
Patient, perfectly pitched and able to present soul-stirring interactions with maximal confidence, House of Hummingbird is an unthinkable debut feature.
Yet first outing it is, as Kim Bora manages to announce herself as a modern filmmaker we will be likely viewing and discussing for several years to come.
Kim takes us back to the 1990s for this coming-of-age tale, matching her youth in timescales at least, but unfolding the story of Eun-hee (Park Ji-hoo), a restrained 14-year-old attempting to juggle young love, a demanding education system, and a cold and sometimes violent family home life.
The 1994 Seoul setting has its own narrative purpose through its final act, but it has a wider relevance of comprehending South Korea as a country feeling its own ways through various growing pains, just as we witness Eun-hee do the same on a micro-scale.
Eun-hee’s household is deeply dysfunctional. Her parents (Seung-Yeon Lee and In-gi Jeong) constantly quarrel, her sister Su-hee (Su-yeon Park) assumes the role of troublemaker and late night delinquent, while her brother Dae-hoon (Sang-yeon Sohn) is a violent bully who physically attacks Eun-hee.
At school, she is pressured by the high demands of the education systems, including one scene where the class are told to repeatedly chant “Instead of karaoke, I will go to Seoul National University,” in increasingly loud barks.
Her love life and sexual persuasion is fluid, an truth that is not presented in cinema enough, as she dates naïve boy Ji-wan (Yoon-seo Jeong) and then a bewildering girl named Yu-ri (Hye-in Seol).
Surrounded by these figures, Eun-hee still manages to cut a lonely figure, as she attempts to construct her sense of self and purpose in the rapidly changing Seoul. She eventually finds a connection with her Chinese language teacher, Yong-ji (Kim Sae-byeok), who manages to comfort Eun-hee that feeling unsure of ourselves is a natural part of the human condition.
While Director Kim will, deservingly so, receive the chief plaudits, there are the fingerprints of a wider crew of flourishing talents. Cinematographer Kang Kuk-hyun combines close details to the period with perfect lens work that assists the tender developments of Eun-hee. There is then the superb sound design, overseen by Han Myung-hwan, who has worked with the likes of Hong Sang-soo and Park Chan-wook, who leans on subtle sounds such as bird chirps to highlight the emotional weight of contemplation.
There is a long tail on the coming-of-age arc in cinema, but Kim Bora manages to inject so much originality into House of Hummingbird, the woes of Eun-hee feel deeply fresh. This is often triggered by Park Ji-hoo who offers up a perfectly understated central performance.
The film is not all doom and gloom either, there is a warm-heartedness to it. In places at least. We understand that, by and large, things get easier. We start to better comprehend ourselves and our place in the world. We can only hope Eun-hee soon starts to realise the same, such is our investment in her fortunes.