House of Hummingbird Review
Set in 1994, House of Hummingbird details the adolescence of a young South Korean girl in a story that mirrors a country’s vast development against a small, quiet coming of age tale. Bora Kim’s feature film follows 14 year-old Eun-hee as she navigates the tricky world between childhood and adulthood, surrounded by a family who all have their own burdens to bear and a country on the edge of irreversible change.
Protagonist Eun-hee (Ji-hu Park) is more often than not quite passive in her story. She is stuck between an overbearing father, an aggressive bully for a brother, and a sister who is determined to break all the rules. She wafts dreamily from one situation to the next, any sense of control she has over life is relinquished to her parents or her teachers - a fairly usual teenage experience. Yet, Eun-hee’s life is inextricably tied to the fast growing globalisation and development of South Korea. Her family reside in Seoul and through Eun-hee, the audience is given a glimpse of the abject poverty that those in the city are subjected to. Those that know their history are acutely aware that the climax of the film heads towards the infamous Seongsu Bridge climax - a tragedy which claimed 32 lives.
Events swirl around Eun-hee, new friendships form, a female teacher at her school prompts Eun-hee to question her understanding of not only the people around her but her understanding of her own thoughts as well. It’s been noted that the hummingbird of the title reflects Eun-hee’s position in the world - flighty and small, being pushed around in the wind of forces beyond her control. But, like a bird in the branches, Eun-hee is always watching and observing everyone around her. She might seem small, but she forges new friendships, rebuffs the constant order not to go to karaoke, initiates first kisses and even attends a doctor’s appointment alone despite potentially being faced with diagnosis of a terrible disease.
Through Eun-hee’s eyes, we see rural land marked for housing developments and sky high tower blocks spring up (one of which Eun-hee and her family live in). There is a constant barrage from adults on the ills of being a delinquent and the threat of an authoritarian higher power constantly linger in the background. The girls, Eun-hee and her classmates, are expected to fall in line, behave properly and be silent - their aspiration is to attend Seoul University. Though, as one of her classmates whispers in an early scene as Eun-hee sleeps on a desk - her passivity might just result in her becoming a housemaid instead.
Director Kim and cinematographer Gook-hyan Kang really utilise every single shot. Not a single one is wasted, every frame means something to us and to Eun-hee. House of Hummingbird feels at its strongest when it pushes the boundaries with its cinematography - the slow motion trampoline bouncing, or Eun-hee and Ji-wan’s first kiss in a darkened stairwell, half obscured in the limited light.
Some will balk at the film’s lengthy 138 minute running time - perhaps understandably as so little of ‘note’ happens. But that entirely depends on your definition of what is and isn’t noteworthy. Eun-hee’s life is perhaps mundane to those who seek action and thrill in cinema, but the small ups and downs of girlhood and teenage-hood (and all that goes along with it), is more than enough to keep to keep Kim’s House of Hummingbird engaging from the first frame to the last.
House of Hummingbird is released digitally on Friday June 26th