‘A superlative example of the power of film.’
House of Hummingbird is a fascinating film and, to some Western fans of South Korean cinema, an outlier. Park Chan-Wook set an expectation with the likes of Oldboy for particularly violent and surreal works to come from the country, and even Bong Joon-ho’s best picture winner Parasite still brought blood and bizarre events to his capitalist satire. House of Hummingbird, however, is a much more grounded look at a fractured society, and one that might feel startlingly candid if you’re used to works such as those. It might be argued, too, that it rubbishes the precarious concept of “national cinemas”, one that simply makes the films non-American countries easily categorisable: such a fixed, West-centric way of viewing cinema doesn’t work for such a personal, theme-driven story not laden with such baggage.
The story follows fourteen-year-old Eunhee (Park Ji-hoo) and her struggle to grow up in ’90s South Korea, one that writer-director Kim Bora has admitted – in interview with Asian Movie Pulse – to being semi-autobiographical. This doesn’t mean, however, an uncontrolled reckoning with the creator’s experiences, but the texture of Eunhee’s life encompassing a range of topics like the exploration of sexuality, adolescent uncertainty, capitalism’s vicissitudes, and the patriarchal pressures upon young and old alike. Eunhee is played with enough emotion to feel like a real teen, both hardened and naive, but she also affords us a clear vantage point of the world unburdened by adult observations.
Aesthetics prove surprisingly crucial to something so thematically driven, with Kim’s signature directorial style evidently apt from the very beginning. Kim leaves the visuals to tell us much of much the meaning behind situations, directing our attention with a subtlety that suits the serious themes: a parent being out of shot a match for their emotional distance, for instance, and meaningful stares between sisters showcasing a mutual understanding ignored by the dysfunctional family at large. The script is sparse in comparison, presenting reality as it often is: unexplained and lacking resolution. It’s a shame, then, that the score is sweetly melancholic and sometimes adds an unwarranted sense of ease to the film, feeling as if it’s pulled from an entirely different genre.
However, what truly brings the film’s array of themes and technical prowess together is controlled passion from the cast and creator alike. All the characters feel like real, layered people with external facades and perceptible self-doubt beneath. It’s a testament to the universally strong craft that a minor role of Eunhee’s father (Jung In-gi) leaves the strongest impression performance-wise, being someone who flits uncertainty between villain and victim, controlled and wildly uncertain. The film’s committed to stark and complex reality throughout, and whilst it’s compromised of numerous archetypes – the destructive drunken father, the protective teachers – these rarely approach cliché. Clichés disappear partly because we aren’t given expected teachable moments but, mirroring life, are led through a jumble of experiences, believable false starts, and sudden ends. However, the reminder that this is all driven by a fierce purpose comes through breakaway moments when Kim, in the guise of authority figures, shows shock and disgust at the normalisation of miserable circumstances.
House of Hummingbird really is something special. It’s a work with a scope that’s bold in how its linking of the societal with the personal, and in its self-assured avoidance of cinematic convention. You could call it a refreshingly honest coming of age film or a South Korean take on furious Ken Loach social realism, but this would be to suggest that it’s a tale that’s a mere expansion of familiar tropes and one bound to genre conventions. Instead, Kim has used her understanding of the craft of filmmaking to produce a story that consistently centres people and their experiences in a way that makes most comparison seem trite. The film’s dedication to the nuance of human experience makes it worth watching, then, not just for anyone wanting to better understand South Korean society, but for anyone who’s ever questioned how they fit into the modern world.
Dir: Kim Bora
Prod: Zoe Sua Cho, Kim Bora
Cast: Park Ji-hoo, Kim Sae-byuk, Jung In-ji, Lee Seung-yeon, Park Soo-yeon
Release Date: 2019 (South Korea), 2020 (US)