Female directors are slowly beginning to gain more prominence in the male-dominated field of South Korean Cinema. Kim Bora is one of many emerging female directors in recent years, and her debut feature, House of Hummingbird, proves that she’ll likely be a name to be reckoned with in the years to come. Loosely autobiographical, House of Hummingbird is a heart-breaking coming-of-age drama that delves most earnestly into the world of female adolescence within a patriarchal system.
We’re in Seoul, South Korea, in 1994, a time of change and transformation for the country. Eunhee (Park Ji-hoo) is a 14-year old middle school student who is unfairly labelled a “delinquent” simply because she does not meet her teacher’s academic expectations. Her home life is troubled, as her father (Jung In-gi) and mother (Lee Seung-yeon) focus most of their time and energy on their son, Eunhee’s brother, whom they hold in much higher regard than either of their daughters. The only one who seems to support Eunhee and her dream of being a comic-book artist is her cram-school teacher, Yong-ji (Kim Sae-byuk).
Eunhee must go through many hardships as she navigates the hostile world around her – a health scare for which her parents can’t be bothered, a messy breakup with her boyfriend, the betrayal of her best friend, the possible divorce of her parents – and she has no choice but to power through. The ending is not a happy one, but she’s learned a valuable lesson: to never let life knock her down without a fight.
Park, who is in almost every one of the film’s 138 minutes, has total command of her character and the emotional intricacies of the situations she’s in. While, no doubt, Park has the backing of Kim Bora’s excellent script, it is primarily Park’s charisma and ability to draw in the audience’s sympathy that makes the film stand apart from the many similarly-themed pieces that have come out of South Korea in recent years. Kim, who previously stared in Hong Sang-so’s The Day After (2017), also gives a great performance here as Eunhee’s teacher, even though she only appears in a few scenes.
House of Hummingbird may not be an overt feminist critique, though it certainly takes a few jabs at what we today call “toxic masculinity.” Eunhee’s father and brother are the stereotypical examples of men who want to be in-control, especially of the women around them. Their expressions of violence and over-arching authority are clear-cut symptoms of the patriarchy they live in. The film doesn’t take much time to explore the lives of its male characters in detail, but it is nevertheless careful to not reduce them to caricatures. They’re real people with real problems, propagating the system they were born in, simply because it’s the path of least resistance.
With all her merits, director Kim could have used a harsher editor, as the film begins to drag over the course of its lengthy running time. The plot does not have the focus of a conventional three-act structure, but it is rather a slice-of-life drama, meandering from one point to the next in Eunhee’s life. This is ideal for exploring her character in depth, though not all subplots are equally justified. For instance, Eunhee’s exploration of her sexuality, while an interesting concept, feels more like an incomplete thought, capped off with a rushed and unsatisfactory resolution in which Eunhee’s “girlfriend” simply gets tired of her for no reason other than the fact that the story has to move on to the next scene.
House of Hummingbird is not a perfect film by any means, but it exhibits all the signs of excellence in front and behind the camera. It is sure to strike a chord with many viewers who might recognize a bit of their own lives within the film’s melancholic but ultimately hopeful tale.
John Atom is two things: a molecular physicist by day and a devout cinephile by night. His love for Asian cinema started way back in high school when one rainy night he decided to pick up a rather peculiar-looking DVD of a movie called Oldboy... and he was hooked! Since then, he’s watched just about every Asian film he could get his hands on, and plans to continue doing so. More recently he’s developed a new interest in science fiction, particularly in the interdependence of science and SF, and how one may influence the other.