There’s something ubiquitous about adolescence that makes coming-of-age stories. It doesn’t matter what era or culture they derive or take place within, because there’s something universal, even in their specificity: the social awkwardness, the longing for connection, the need to feel seen. Writer/director Bora Kim takes this a step further in her feature debut House of Hummingbird, in which she combines aspects of her own experience with historical events to craft a slow and somber story filled with ache. Within the film, Kim’s surrogate is Eunhee (Ji-Hu Park), a 14-year old girl living in 1994 Seoul who finds no peace or support at home or at school. Bouncing from place to place in searching of connection, Eunhee explores matters of love, friendship, and health at a time when the country is experiencing incredible growth yet seems unable to withstand it. It’s in this, that sensation of stilted maturation due to neglect and presumption, that House of Hummingbird finds it emotional foothold. Difficult to observe, difficult to let go of.
Much of the melancholy within Hummingbird comes from the fact that Eunhee suffers defeat and indignity time and again. The narrative is not intent on harming her, finding ways original and well-known to poke and prod her, but it will not let her rest. She falls in love with a boy, only to have her heart broken and mended and hurt again by the same boy. She tests the waters with lesbianism, either falling in love too late or being just desperate to feel loved. She’s called a delinquent by her homeroom teacher, abused by her elder brother Daehoon (Sang-Yeon Son), and treated by her father (In-gi Jung) as largely disposable. Some of this may be the customs of the culture — the father pushes for the family to give up things so that Daehoon, the male heir, can study hard to attend school at the detriment of the sisters — yet it’s clear that it still creates a heavy toll psychologically on Eunhee. As if to highlight what damage this particular cultural expectation does to the women of South Korea, there’s a lovely moment between Eunhee and her mother (Seung-yeon Lee) in which the two discuss the relationship between Eunhee’s uncle (Yeong-seon Hang) and her mother. It’s mentioned in passing before this that her mother gave up many things so that the brother could go to school and, though she loves her daughters, it’s evident that the longing for what could have been exists within mom. So, when Eunhee receives either physical or psychological abuse at the hands of her family, it’s a wonder that’s Eunhee’s able to keep standing. This, though, is the crux of Kim’s story, the true purpose of exploring adolescence via Eunhee: the resilience of youth.
Without hesitation, Hummingbird is a totally dour experience, but this doesn’t mean it’s a hopeless one. Even as we watch Eunhee try and fail over and again, the fact that she keeps trying in the face of what feels like a Sisyphean feat, is itself reason for hope. Eunhee tries, perhaps with the clarity and gentility of the socially inept, but she tries to get it right. She’s aware enough to know that she’s not particularly gifted when it comes to schooling, but her skill with the pencil to craft and create is unmatched. It is not a source of solace within the narrative, not specifically, until Kim introduces a new after-school teacher, Youngji (Sae-byuk Kim), who becomes a sort-of figure of support. Who among us can’t recall that one person who appeared at just the right time to make us feel seen and understood despite the complex mess we perceive ourselves to be. Where American cinema would make this connection feel monolithic, Kim prefers something softer and quieter, totally in keeping with the overall tone of the film. Eunhee does not understand the gravity of Youngji’s influence until later, and Kim ensures that the audience feels the same. But then, so much of Hummingbird takes that approach: initially feeling weightless until the story has had time to linger on the mind and weigh on the soul.
As personal an experience Hummingbird is for the audience, it’s profoundly more-so for Kim who took direct elements from her own life to inspire the story. What results isn’t something that parallels Kim’s youth, but something from which it derives its authenticity. Eunhee suffers from a torn eardrum due to physical abuse from a family member, whereas Kim’s came from a stranger. Neither, however, tell their parents out of a fear of being a burden. Whether this is the mindset of an age where you are seeking independence yet are still very much requiring parental support, or it’s just compounded by cultural norms, it’s a physical violation which goes unanswered in Hummingbird. Late into the film, Kim introduces the October 1944 collapse of the Seongsu Bridge. It’s meant, narratively, to be a physical manifestation of Eunhee’s emotional peak, the result of a growing internal malignancy, but it doesn’t seem to have the effect as intended. Unlike the eardrum injury, which carries forward Eunhee’s seeming acceptance of a life of disappointment, the collapse of the bridge offers no relief to the subtext or the text. Instead, it offers a false dream of peace among the discord at home, and invites a pain worse than any Eunhee’s handled before. The inclusion of the historical element, something which touched Kim in a similar manner as Eunhee, certainly grounds Hummingbird within the era of Seoul, even if it lacks the subtextual weight intended. What it does do is set-up an ending that is simultaneously light and meaningful as it is positive and healing. Once more, resilience is key. And is something we could all do with a little more of right now.
House of Hummingbird is the rare Well Go USA release with little-to-no special features. With the exception of previews for upcoming releases and trailers for Hummingbird, this home release includes no behind the scenes materials or bonus featurettes of any kind. Considering the heady content within Hummingbird and the incredible patience Kim requires the audience to have, it would be nice to hear more about the creation process from the author herself, or to learn more about the gorgeous cinematography from Kook-Hyun Kang (The Shameless) which captured Eunhee’s world exactly as it is, not as she imagined it to be, allowing for light and darkness to exist wherever we find it. Or even the music from Matija Strnisa (The Golan Swimmingpool) which, though used sparsely, evokes the gentleness of youth and the power of the forces which often feel in opposition to our desires. Perhaps even the casting process that brought Park to Kim after an extensive search to find the perfect Eunhee. Whatever one thinks of House of Hummingbird upon its conclusion, learning more about such a beautiful film would only enhance the experience.
No special features included with the Blu-ray release.
Available on Blu-ray and digital August 4th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.