Writer-director Kim Bora’s superlative feature debut, House of Hummingbird, opens with a brief, seemingly throwaway scene that neatly encapsulates the film’s heightened emotional and psychological tensions. Following a title card that identifies the feature’s setting – Seoul, South Korea, in 1994 – the film introduces the viewer to an awkward 14-year-old girl named Eun-hee (a superb Park Ji-hu). Having returned from a market errand, she stands at the locked door to her family’s apartment, waiting in vain for her mother to let her inside. She rings the bell repeatedly and pounds on the door in desperation, her agitation mounting into near-hysteria as she shrieks for her mother to please, open the door. Then, suddenly, she realizes her error: She is not standing at her family’s apartment, No. 1902, but rather at No. 902. It’s a simple mistake – and an understandable one, given the drab, unfriendly anonymity of the massive apartment block – but Eun-hee slinks back to the correct door like she’s just made the most humiliating blunder of her life. Her mother (Lee Seung-Yun) takes the grocery bags from her and scolds her about the scallions, oblivious to her daughter’s lingering distress.
This opening scene has no impact on the rest of the film – Eun-hee, as one might expect, never mentions the embarrassing incident to anyone – but it gracefully illustrates the lonely and troubled adolescent purgatory in which the girl finds herself. The youngest of three children in a deeply dysfunctional working-class family, Eun-hee is quiet and unremarkable, at least in the eyes of her family, teachers, and schoolmates. Mom and Dad (Jeong In-gi) run a struggling rice-cake shop, where the children are expected to put in early-morning hours preparing the wares. Dad is something of a petty tyrant: a wormy adulterer who keeps his household in line with bellowing emotional abuse and physical threats. It’s a decidedly unhappy home, but everyone is too overworked to dwell on their unhappiness. When Eun-hee’s parents are not working or fighting, they are often passed out from exhaustion. The family seems to be pinning all its hopes for the future on the prospects of eldest child Dae-hoon (Son Sang-yeon) – a questionable proposition, given his poor grades and his own violent temperament. Middle sister Su-hee (Park Soo-yeon) is the household’s Bad Girl, skipping school by day and sneaking her boyfriend into the room she shares with Eun-hee by night. Meanwhile, Mom’s brother (Hyung Young-seon) seems to be spiraling into a mental-health crisis, showing up at the family’s apartment late one night in a drunken daze.
Given these domestic tribulations, it is no surprise that Eun-hee ends up falling through the cracks. She struggles both academically and socially at school, where her mean-girl classmates single her out as a “problem student” to a dictatorial instructor. She finds some consolation by whiling away afternoons with her best friend, Ji-sook (Park Seo-yoon), sneaking cigarettes and hitting teen dance halls. There is also a boy, Ji-wan (Jung Yoon-seo), with whom Eun-hee shares clumsy kisses and play-acts the painfully naïve eighth-grade conception of a relationship. Complicating things further, a shy, lovelorn schoolmate named Yoo-ri (Seol Hye-in) begins to eagerly flirt with Eun-hee, who finds the girl’s attentions mildly confusing but not entirely unwelcome. In short, Eun-hee’s travails are mostly typical for a 14-year-old girl, with one exception: One day, she finds a suspicious lump on her neck. After several anxious trips to the local medical clinic, this protuberance is diagnosed as a benign tumor on the girl’s salivary gland, requiring a surgical procedure that has a slim potential to permanently paralyze her facial muscles.
One of the many remarkable things about House of Hummingbird is that this left-field development – a rare medical condition that further upends Eun-hee’s already-tumultuous life – does not come to dominate the film’s narrative. It is simply one of the many things that happens to Eun-hee in the autumn of 1994. The tumor subplot is afforded roughly the same emotional significance as every other notable event depicted in the film, whether it’s the shoplifting incident that threatens Eun-hee and Ji-sook’s friendship or the sudden death of Eun-hee’s uncle (by suicide, it is implied). Like many great coming-of-age films – from Aparajito (1956) to The 400 Blows (1959) to Boyhood (2012) – Kim’s feature is less concerned with keying in on a specific foundational event in Eun-hee’s youth than in capturing the overwhelming whirl of her adolescent experiences, which are spiked with emotional intensity and studded with idiosyncratic details.
The closest thing to a formative influence in Eun-hee’s life is her new Chinese cram-school teacher, Yong-ji (Kim Sae-byeok). The instructor is everything that the girl seems to regard as "adult" in the aspirational sense: intelligent, confident, attractive. She does not yell or berate. She smokes unashamedly in front of Eun-hee and Ji-sook, and questions them sincerely about their dreams and interests. Yong-ji is cool, in a way that seems foreign and mesmerizing to Eun-hee, who desperately craves the teacher’s approval. Yong-ji, for her part, seems to take a shine to Eun-hee, sharing her oolong tea with the girl and encouraging her in her artwork. For perhaps the first time in her young life, Eun-hee feels understood.
Director Kim leaves the long-term impact of this relationship to the viewer’s imagination, but it is obvious that for Eun-hee, Yong-ji represents a glimpse of a more fulfilling life, one that is unbeholden to abusive family members, petty adolescent rivalries, and a rapidly modernizing society where a child’s future is preordained by exam scores. The filmmaker elegantly builds on the feature’s themes of frustration, loneliness, and alienation in virtually every scene, and only very rarely does this approach betray a hint of narrative contrivance. While House of Hummingbird is fictional, Kim has claimed that it is “very autobiographical,” a fact that is apparent from the film’s relaxed, episodic structure. It is less a sharply defined story than a series of interlocking incidents, one where the beginning and ending points are essentially arbitrary. (Kim does tie the film’s conclusion to a real-world event, and somewhat gauchely at that, but this choice undeniably reflects the way national tragedies can loom in one’s childhood memories.)
Editor Zoe Sua Cho cuts between scenes in a slightly haphazard, disorientating manner that evokes the at times capricious character of memory. Why is one able to clearly recall sitting down for an afterschool snack on a random day, but one cannot recollect anything that happened during a loved one’s funeral? The notion that the viewer is witnessing Eun-hee’s remembrances is reinforced by the narrative’s childlike elisions – Dad’s infidelity is only suggested at the margins, for example, and some of the story’s most traumatic events occur outside the frame, as though banished to a dark, unacknowledged corner. Indeed, House of Hummingbird often feels eerily like one is reading from random pages in a girl’s diary, only gradually and unwittingly sucked in by the hyperbolic emotional vocabulary and fumbling poetic asides.
The most conspicuous element that distinguishes House of Hummingbird from many slice-of-life portraits of adolescence is the feature’s sheer cinematic allure. Kim and cinematographer Kang Guk-hyan employ a flexible stylistic approach that seems attuned to the multitudes contained in Eun-hee’s roiling inner life. In one scene, they might lean into a Dardennes-style handheld immediacy, following close behind their young protagonist as she warily navigates her world. In another, they might eavesdrop on a conversation between Eun-hee and another character from far across a courtyard, capturing them in a wide shot that emphasizes either the moment’s sun-kissed nostalgia or the setting’s stifling banality. Every formal choice seems designed to slyly reflect Eun-hee’s state of mind, and it is a credit to Kim’s steady hand that those often disparate choices consistently feel organic rather than distracting.
Given that she has never directed a feature before, Kim evinces an extraordinary affinity for leveraging the medium’s strengths. Too often, autobiographical dramas struggle to justify their existence as films – going all-in on emotional authenticity or period verisimilitude while neglecting cinematic artistry. House of Hummingbird is a rare exception. The film possesses a heartfelt regard for the messy, anguished complexities of Eun-hee’s experiences, yet it expresses that affection as much through mise-en-scène as through dialogue. Indeed, Kim has a particular talent for zeroing in on the sort of visual and aural details that often seem to persist in memories: the holes worn through the heel of old pantyhose, an overlooked shard from a broken lamp, the sizzle of a vegetable omelet made with unspoken love. Kim and her collaborators intuitively grasp how random fragments such as these are scattered throughout each individual’s private narrative, as resonant as a first kiss or first loss.
House of Hummingbird is now available to rent online from Kino Marquee.