An isolated, lonely 14-year-old girl is essentially the hummingbird of the title in first-time director Kim Bora’s House of Hummingbird, a quiet, deliberate coming-of-age drama that sees young Eunhee flitting around mid-’90s Seoul seeking connection. Screening in BIFF’s aggressively art house New Currents competition (the festival seems to be making a break for content diversity this year by programming several accessible genre films and movies that remember the “motion” part of motion picture), House emerged as the section’s buzziest title, and with good reason. Sensitive, keenly observed and unflinchingly honest, the film is destined for an extended festival run, and though a few plot points are specific to South Korea, the emotions that underpin the slip of a narrative will resonate everywhere. In a perfect world, the film should find success with niche audiences in Asia-Pacific and overseas markets.
Kim, who also wrote the script, has been kicking around the short film scene since the mid-2000s, and this first feature is in line with her preferred subject matter involving the place of girls and young women within their families and Korean society. House of Hummingbird can be a little too deliberate in its contemplations and contextualizing Eunhee in her solitude and search for intimacy can be bloated at times, but ultimately it’s an assured and affecting portrait of teenaged uncertainty and insecurity. Young actor Park Jihu turns in a surprisingly nuanced — and it could be said, mature — performance as Eunhee, crafting a blessedly layered character.
Set in 1994, which is an important point come the film’s third act (it was a time when the country’s construction boom would come back to haunt it), House of Hummingbird has a slice-of-life format pivoting on a few tumultuous months in Eunhee’s life. Her dysfunctional family is comprised of her indifferent, distracted mother and father (Lee Seungyeon and Jeong Ingi), abusive, favored older brother Daehoon (Son Sangyeon), and withdrawn sister Suhee (Bak Suyeon). When she’s not listening to screaming matches at home or being utterly unremarkable at school, Eunhee is hanging out in juvenile karaoke clubs and shoplifting with her friend Jisuk (Park Saeyun), or very apprehensively experimenting with her emergent sexuality, first with a boy from another school, Jiwan (Jeong Yunseo), and later (maybe) with a shy girl in her class, Yuri (Seol Hyein). She experiences a death in the family, a health scare and a series of betrayals by her so-called friends. Somewhere along the way she forges a bond with her cram school tutor, Kim Youngji (Kim Saebyuk), who teaches her that life is actually worth living and that things will get better.
There’s a warm, calm tone to House of Hummingbird that contrasts with the turmoil of Eunhee’s life, but the sunny glow of her happier moments outnumber the images that are more downbeat, and DOP Kang Gookhyun dispenses with flash and dash for a more grounded aesthetic. When Eunhee allows herself to be vulnerable, particularly around Youngji, the camera is still and lets Eunhee’s thoughts and feeling cross her face uninterrupted. Matching Park scene-for-scene is Kim as a restless teacher who may see a bit of herself in Eunhee. There’s a weary, regretful air about Kim’s Youngji that seems to dissipate when she decides she may have something valuable to offer the younger woman, taking her under wing without ever condescending. The two are a pleasure to watch together. Here’s hoping director Kim gets this band back together sooner rather than later.
Production company: Epiphany Films
Cast: Park Jihu, Kim Saebyuk, Lee Seungyeon, Jeong Ingi, Seol Hyein, Park Saeyun, Jeong Yunseo, Bak Suyeon, Son Sangyeon
Director: Kim Bora
Screenwriter: Kim Bora
Producer: Cho Zoe Sua, Yoon Ickjun
Director of photography: Kang Gookhyun
Production designer: Kim Geuna
Costume designer: Yang Heehwa
Editor: Cho Zoe Sua
Music: Strnisa Matija
World sales: Contents Panda
No rating, 139 minutes