Writer/director Bora Kim’s feature debut, House of Hummingbird, follows the journey of Eun-hee (Ji-hu Park), a timid 14-year-old girl who’s tasked with navigating the choppy waters of a toxic household and her budding adolescence in 1994 Seoul.
Smack dab in the middle of a dysfunctional, working class family who tirelessly runs a rice cake shop, Eun-hee does her best to silently survive among her neglectful and argumentative parents, a “delinquent” older sister and, worst of all, a physically abusive older brother. She’s going through the motions of her inherited roles and trying not to ruffle feathers, all the while not-so-secretly floundering. She’s an outsider to her family and peers, and she feels exhausted at the thought of doing much else but existing. When she discovers a suspicious lump behind her ear and encounters a major health scare as a result, her loneliness is on full display as she’s forced to traverse the frightening crisis virtually all on her own.
As is customary with life (and adolescent life in particular), little things beget big changes, and Eun-hee’s focus quickly shifts to new relationships that keep her afloat just long enough to make it to the other side. With a subject matter and sense of care reminiscent of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, this coming-of-age film presents an achingly real portrait of the complex inner life of a teenage girl who’s seemingly too sensitive to exist in her unforgiving world. Yet, with an understated but impactful approach, Kim capably steers her film, making sure to evoke empathy but never enter into teenage soap opera territory. Her protagonist is reserved and agonizingly limited by her circumstances, but she never comes across as meek or incapable — she’s merely frustrated by the things she cannot change and longs for a sense of freedom and connection.
House of Hummingbird is such an honest portrayal of teenage girlhood — preferring stolen moments of bliss and secretive kisses over ungrateful tantrums and “bad girl” tropes — that it could be considered too subtle for its own good. However, Kim’s patient direction allows Park to grab the reins in her first leading role and drive the story in such a thoughtful, commanding way that viewers gladly go along for the ride.
Eun-hee feels invisible, unlovable and unworthy of attention, and attempts to find guidance and care wherever she can. But when she meets her new Chinese cram tutor, Young-ji (Sae-byuk Kim), her life begins to change course. This hardened yet wonderfully intuitive teacher soon becomes her mentor and friend, and she affords Eun-hee the opportunity to really be seen for the first time in her life. There’s an unspoken understanding exchanged between the two from the start, and after one particularly devastating shoplifting-gone-awry afternoon with Eun-hee’s best friend, the pair bond over oolong tea, comic books and their plaguing feelings of loneliness and unlikability.
Young-ji becomes her refuge — a safe space for her to learn and grow and mess up without fear of punishment or consequence. When Eun-hee confides in her about her brother’s abuse, Young-ji patiently guides her pupil toward self-reliance and self-acceptance, reminding her that it “takes time to learn to like yourself” and that she must do everything she can to fight for herself, even against those she’s related to. In her friendship with Young-ji, Eun-hee finds that sense of belonging that she’s been searching for her whole life, and the pair’s sullen, compassionate chemistry is deeply affecting to witness.
Within this burgeoning mentorship, another relationship — or, should I say, two — begins to flourish. Eun-hee finds herself in a love triangle of sorts with Ji-wan, a nice enough boy who’s as inexperienced and unconfident as she is, and Yu-ri, a girl who unequivocally expresses her affections after a clandestine night out at an underground dance club. Eun-hee is quietly caught in the crosshairs between the two and often unsure of where she stands with either of them on any given afternoon — a feeling all too familiar for those who’ve experienced the growing pains of young love. Park shines especially brightly here as she tenderly communicates the perfect balance of naiveté and maturity with the nuance of an actor well beyond her years. With heartache on her sleeve and hopefulness in her eyes, her Eun-hee walks through the world with an unsung resilience that is difficult to quantify but undeniably mesmerizing to watch.
Perhaps the most affecting display of this skill is during the scene in which Eun-hee runs through her school hallway and frantically calls her father after learning of the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge. Concerned for the safety of her sister, whose bus route includes the structure, she’s inconsolable and unapologetically expressive, a massive departure from her usually subdued nature. She’s bursting at the seams throughout the entire film and finally explodes, as only a 14-year-old girl can. With a screaming fit proclaiming that there is “nothing wrong” with her and a living room stomp session set to a pop song, Eun-hee quite literally dances out a catharsis that’s not only well earned, but desperately needed.
Narratively speaking, though, the film does feel slightly adrift in tone and tenor in spots — perhaps an attempt to mirror the journey of its aimless main character — but Kim manages to anchor attention spans with contextualizing historical events (e.g., the sudden death of Kim Il-sung and the aforementioned bridge tragedy) long enough to stay the course. The real beauty of this film, however, lies in its ability to balance restraint with relatability; depicting the confounding dynamics of teenage friendship and first love (highlighted by a particularly effective “best friend fight” and a painfully relatable “120-day anniversary” mixtape) against the backdrop of heavy family dynamics and historically important events.
Adding to this delicate balance is Gook-hyun Kang’s stirring cinematography. The camera captures sunlight beaming off of Eun-hee’s face during brief moments of happiness in such an intimate way that it feels as if it’s the first time she’s experiencing joy. The trampoline scene in particular, with the glowing afternoon light haloing the girls’ hair as they blissfully bounce and discuss the perils of marriage, communicates a certain kind of bittersweetness you can almost see on screen. It’s a juxtaposition that is not only visually arresting but also deeply emotionally unnerving and serves the narrative undercurrent tenfold.
By smartly counterbalancing the soft, natural elements of Eun-hee’s world against its hard interiors, Kim and Kang work in harmony to highlight the lightness surrounding her internal darkness. Visually, this choice beautifully balances the conflicting forces in Eun-hee’s environment and underscores the message that good things can always derive from bad situations.
House of Hummingbird beautifully chronicles that raw, transitory time of adolescence when small things feel gigantic and the weight of the future looms heavy but distant. It depicts the awakening of a teen girl’s blossoming personality and sexual identity in a way that feels introspective and intimate, but never exploitative. Kim clearly cares for her characters and semiautobiographical story alike — perhaps a tad too much as the run time itself is a touch long — and it’s this care that captures the hearts of those who watch it. Her film is minimal but poignant and is bound to leave you with an unmistakable sense of youthful fascination for the world around you.
Available to rent starting June 26 via fineartstheatre.com