Two films that I’ve seen this year have connected with me on a deeply personal level, despite one being about a Black woman in New York (The 40 Year Old Version) and one being about an East Asian girl in Seoul. What could I (a white woman from a small English village) have in common with these two people from these two places, you may ask? It is because I am exactly the same age as the two protagonists and found much to relate to in both films, despite our vast cultural differences. House of Hummingbird is about a 14 year old girl in 1994 (hence us being the same age) and the film follows her struggles with her family, friends, boyfriend, school and health issues. The film was awarded Best International Narrative Feature at Tribeca Film Festival 2019. In addition, the movie earned Grand Prix for Best Feature Film at Berlinale and the Audience Award at The Busan International Film Festival.
The film is written and directed by Bora Kim (making her feature film debut) and is loosely based on her own experiences of growing up in Seoul. Of course, the success of House of Hummingbird very much hangs on the central performance of Ji-hu Park as Eun-hee Kim and the young actress absolutely meets this challenge. She is in every scene and we view the city and all of the other characters from Eun-hee’s perspective. Eun-hee has a difficult relationship with her father, who puts enormous pressure on his three children (but is definitely harder on his two daughters than his son). They are expected to help him in his shop (where he is known for his rice cakes) as well as excelling at school. After school, Eun-hee attends Chinese Cram School, but she has a good friend there, Jisuk and she also forms a close bond with her young teacher, Young-ji. Both Jisuk and Eun-hee are abused by their brothers – at one stage, Jisuk has to wear a face mask to hide a swollen, bruised and bloodied lip and Eun-hee has her ear drum perforated in an altercation with her brother. Eun-hee has a boyfriend and one of the most authentic 90s teen details is that she makes him a mixtape for their “120 Day Anniversary.”
The period details are subtle, but each one brings the thrill of recognition, especially if you came of age in that era. The one detail that Jisuk can think to tell her new teacher when introducing herself is “I like Calvin Klein,” Eun-hee wears a United Colors of Benetton backpack throughout which I would have killed for at her age, 2 Unlimited’s No Limits plays in a dance club scene, the 94 World Cup (in USA) plays on the TV and the main way Eun-hee communicates with her friends, sister and boyfriend is by pager.
Important events of the time are woven into the story of House of Hummingbird as well, including the death of North Korea’s leader Kim Il-sung, while Eun-hee is in hospital having a lump removed from behind her ear. Eun-hee views her stay at the hospital as a sanctuary, providing her respite from her troubled home life. The main event that forms part of the story is the Seongsu Bridge Collapse, a real event which caused 32 deaths and 17 injuries. A school bus was crossing the bridge at the time of the collapse and Eun-hee fears her sister is on it, which is based on the director’s real life. The bridge collapse, as well as the Sampoong Department Store collapse in 1995 (which killed over 500) were by-products of the rapid construction and development that took place in Seoul for the Olympic Games in 1988. The film tales place while Seoul is in a period of transition, from an autocracy to a modern democracy, finalised by the election of Kim Dae-jung in 1997.
Both the 90s period references and the news/political upheaval of the era are delicately threaded through the film, with the focus always remaining on Eun-hee and her coming-of-age journey. The relationship with her Chinese language teacher Young-ji (who is sensitively played by Sae-byeok Kim) is one of the greatest strengths of House of Hummingbird, with Eun-hee relishing the fact that she has finally found an adult she can trust and confide in. Eun-hee is sorely lacking role models and mentors in her life and she feels a huge generational divide with her parents and teachers (who have had a very different experience of Korea to her). She is looking for love in the way most teen girls do and desperately wants her friendships to remain loyal and true, but she finds solace in an unexpected place – in this slightly rebellious and cool young teacher.
Despite Eun-hee’s struggles, the film depicts the beauty that can be found in her life and surroundings. The way Seoul is shot by cinematographer Guk-hyun Kang infuses a kind of hazy nostalgia, as if the camera is providing hindsight and a reassurance that she will get through it. After all, the camera is the eye of the adult Bora Kim, letting her younger self know that she’s going to be OK. Eun-hee’s resilience in the face of everything she goes through is a strong through-line and there is certainly a sense of hope pervading all of the tragedy. Eun-hee has the typical teen quality of seeming very child-like and naive at times, as well as having some melodramatic reactions to things. But at other times she is extremely emotionally mature and is certainly more advanced than her parents in many ways, in terms of her outlook on life and how she copes with adversity. This balancing act is expertly conveyed by Ji-hu Park, who deserves to go onto a long and successful career in acting after this (if she chooses).
House of Hummingbird is available on Kino Marquee from tomorrow (June 26 2020), which is a great way to support independent arthouse cinemas during this time, as well as through other independent theatre websites. It is one of the best films of the year, in what has been a really strong year (even if we’re having to watch most films at home). Writer-director Bora Kim is an exciting new voice in feature films and will be a name worth looking out for in the future, as well as actress Ji-hu Park. They have come together to create the magical kind of alchemy that goes into an exquisite coming-of-age film, which has been seasoned with both death and hope. It is very much worth seeking out.
Directed by: Bora Kim
Written by: Bora Kim
Cast: Ji-hu Park, Sae-byeok Kim, Seung-Yun Lee