Eunhee (Park Ji-hu) is a 14 year-old Korean girl living in a troubled household. Her parents fight too much, and her brother keeps violently bullying her. Soon it seems as if her only hope comes from the Chinese teacher from whom she is receiving special lessons.
So far, so feel good. In truth, light plot descriptions of House of Hummingbird make it sound a terribly obvious and twee coming of age drama, and while it certainly coasts across that genre in general terms the description does not sufficiently sell the realism and grounded observations that writer/director Kim Bora has achieved.
She benefits enormously from working with Park Ji-hu’s astonishing central performance. There is a wounded sensitivity to the character that she inhabits at a perfect level: she never feels flat or ordinary, and she never sinks too far into melodrama. This realism also extends to her mother, played by Lee Seung-yeon: there is a mother-daughter relationship that scrapes against the nerves at times and feels entirely natural and loving at others. They match the melancholic tone of the film wonderfully, as does Kim Saebyuk as Eunhee’s mysterious but supportive cram school teacher Miss Yeongji. This is a film with multiple strong female performances in what rings sadly true as a decidedly unfair and patriarchal environment.
There is an underlying sense of history to the film as well, with Kim dropping in particular events and period trends as the film requires them: the runaway property development of the mid-1990s, the death of North Korean despot Kim Il-sun, and the notorious collapse of the Seongsu Bridge all feature at one point or another. They give the film a strong sense of time and place. A few years in the future or past and the story simply could not play out as it does. The film is very tightly shot and observed by director of photography Kang Gook-hyun, with a delicate score by composer Matija Strnisa. Altogether this is a powerfully constructed and slickly developed debut feature, and marks Kim Bora as a director with a world of potential.
What is ultimately so remarkable about House of Hummingbird is that it never grows too miserable. Sad, terrible things happen – and they happen to Eunhee a lot more than they seem to happen to anybody else. Unlucky in her tentative first steps at love, unlucky with friends, she faces family crises, confidence crises, health crises, and more. It feels like it should be all a little too maudlin for an audience to readily accept. It all sparkles in between, however, with little moments of humour lifting the material and the characters. It all feels wonderfully alive. If there is a criticism to be made it is that the film runs about 20 minutes too long, but even that does not feel like time wasted – simply time spent getting to know a 14 year-old girl making defining choices for herself, and muddling her way through. It is smart, human insight on a big screen.