Bora Kim's sensitive and thoughtful writing/directing debut, House of Hummingbird (Beol-sae), is the semi-autobiographical account of Eun-hee (Ji-hu Park), a 14-year-old girl in Seoul in the mid-1990s struggling to find herself in a complex world that gives her few places to fit in. Eun-hee lives at home with her father (In-gi Jeong), an abusive narcissist, her emotional absent mother (Seung-Yun Lee), an underperforming older sister (Bak Suyeon), and a frustrated, physically abusive older brother (Son Sangyeon). Her family is a portrait of dysfunctionality, and it is little surprise that she tries to avoid being in their apartment, which is one of hundreds in an imposing apartment building that is as nondescript as it is enormous. At school she is largely invisible, although she has a semi-boyfriend, Ji-wan (Yoon-seo Jeong), with whom she holds hands and shares a kiss in an empty stairwell. She also has a best friend, Ji-Suk (Seo-yoon Park), with whom she takes Chinese language lessons after school, but otherwise Eun-hee is often alone, literally and emotionally.
She finds real connection with Yong-ji (Sae-byeok Kim), the young woman who begins teaching her Chinese language lessons. Unlike virtually everyone else in her life, Yong-ji takes a real interest in Eun-hee's life and communicates with her in a way that shows that she matters. She responds to Eun-hee's fragile emotions and mentors her in ways that her parents do not (one of the film's most moving moments is when she tells Eun-hee never to let anyone hit her without fighting back, a bit of literal advice in response to Eun-hee's confiding in her about how her brother beats her that also has much larger, symbolic applications to her life as a whole). Whereas Ji-wan eventually leaves her due to his mother's disapproval, Ji-suk betrays her when they are caught shoplifting, and her parents only pay attention to her when she develops a lump under her ear that has to be biopsied and surgically removed, Yong-ji proves to be a consistent presence and positive force in her life.
Bora Kim treats the mundane realities of Eun-hee's existence with a delicate touch, and she largely escapes any sense of forcing the emotions. Having set the film in 1994, the year in which South Korea competed in the World Cup, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung died, and the Seongsu Bridge over the Han River collapsed, killing 32 people, she is clearly intent on placing her intimate coming-of-age tale within a larger cultural context, and she weaves the historical events carefully into the dramatic texture. She also elicits excellent performances from her cast, particularly Ji-hu Park as Eun-hee. Park looks younger than she is, and she conveys naivete without being entirely innocent. It's a complex role, and she holds the center of the film admirably, giving us a character who slowly grows into a self-awareness that the beginning of the film suggests she may never attain. Although firmly set without the culture of South Korea, House of Hummingbird is universal in its depiction of adolescent angst and confusion and the wonderful, terrible experience of growing into a much larger world.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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