By Diana Cheng
AAP Film & Arts Writer
Tolstoy famously wrote: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. Maybe that’s why we have more stories of unhappy families than happy ones. With “House of Hummingbird”, Korean director Bora Kim has gone further to show that despite growing up in an unhappy home, one can still be hopeful, as there are excitement in life and new experiences to taste.
Kim’s debut feature is the coming-of-age story of Eun-hee, a 14 year-old, grade 8 school girl in Seoul, Korea. The setting is 1994, a time of rapid urban development, and the year that the Seongsu Bridge collapsed causing numerous deaths as cars and a school bus plunged into the Han River. While Kim’s story is specific in space and time, the implication of her film is of a larger extent. The exploration of self, the search for love, and the yearning for permanence are universal.
The winner of the 2019 Berlinale Best Feature Film (Grand Prix of the Generation 14+), “House of Hummingbird” has garnered numerous international accolades. At Tribeca (2019), it won Best International Narrative Feature, Cinematography, and Best Actress. These three awards speak to the assets of Kim’s debut work: adroit directing, insightful cinematography (Guk-hyun Kang), and the mature and nuanced performance of a young actor, Ji-hu Park, who plays Eun-hee with a quiet and natural appeal.
Based on Kim’s encounters growing up in South Korea, the drama is seen through the eyes of middle-schooler Eun-hee, the youngest girl in a family that operates a rice cake shop. Eun-hee is a witness to parental conflicts and scolding, and a victim of bullying from older brother Daehoon. Like a hummingbird seeking nectar, Eun-hee yearns for the sweetness in life through friendship and experiences outside of home. Like the hummingbird’s fast fluttering wings, she’s quick in sensing and adapting, her resilience a protective armor against hurt and disappointment.
The camera is an unemotional lens, an eye-witness to a teenage girl’s powerless position. What it captures are some poignant scenes, but never sentimental.
The opening sets the tone. We see a tight shot of Eun-hee ringing the doorbell of an apartment unit from an outside balcony. No response. She begins to pound on the door calling for her mother (Seung-Yun Lee) to open but to no avail, then finds out she’s on the wrong floor. A hand-held camera follows her up one more floor as she rings the doorbell to her home. After she has gone inside and the door closes, the camera slowly pulls away, exposing a large multi-storey complex. Her door is just one among numerous others, greyish and uniform. Even a resident could get the wrong door.
The frantic calling for her mother to come to her in this opening scene will be repeated later in the film, not about opening a door but it’s the same desperate cry to a mother, calling for her to notice her own daughter. Again, Eun-hee gets no response. Surely the issue lies within the mother, who has her own loads to bear.
The scenes of the family sitting down together at the kitchen table for meals are most revealing. The static, long shots from a distance bring to mind the life-capturing stillness of Chantal Akerman’s lens. Eun-hee’s family mirrors the male-dominated larger society. When Dad (In-gi Jeong) speaks, all listen. If he doesn’t start eating, nobody dares to. Older brother’s concern is everyone’s concern: The whole family must get together to get Daehoon into University, Dad charges all at the dinner table.
The seemingly episodic scenes string together a story that’s unified. The health issue that Eun-hee has to deal with all alone just amplifies the inequality and neglects she faces in her very own family, that her Dad has time to take her brother on a campus tour but lets her go through an operation in a hospital far away from home all by herself. But Eun-hee presses on, tenacious and calm.
At school, Eun-hee relates with three other students: a boy named Jiwan, a close classmate Jisuk, and a girl from another class, Yuri, who has a crush on her. Any intimacy from these characters points to Eun-hee’s sexual curiosity but more importantly, a deeper yearning for a meaningful, loving relationship. She soon learns that, regardless of male or female, friendship is ephemeral. Yuri, the girl who had gifted her with a rose, ignores her after she comes back to school from her operation. When Eun-hee confronts her: “you said you liked me,” Yuri replies: “that was last semester.”
The pivotal point of the feature comes when Eun-hee meets her new teacher, Youngji (Sae-byeok Kim), at her after-school Chinese cram class. The literary excerpt on friendship Youngji teaches could well represent the crux of the film: “You may have numerous acquaintances, but how many truly knows your heart?” Youngji is the one who looks deep into the inner world of her student and shares her kindness and insights, and by so doing, sows the seed of strength within Eun-hee.
The 138 minutes film is thought-provoking. Its slow development is naturistic to allow the main character to grow into deeper understanding of her own situation and glean hope for the future. It’s an adroit debut feature from a director to watch.
“House of Hummingbird” opens in virtual cinemas Friday, June 26, 2020. Click Here for more info. Ticket sales will benefit the local independent cinema of your choice to support the industry in this precarious Covid time.