A warm still life about a teenager’s struggle to find herself in a country that’s racing to do the same, Kim Bora’s “House of Hummingbird” so patiently contrasts its contemplative coming-of-age story against the backdrop of South Korea’s hyper-modernization that even its stillest and most tender scenes can feel like an optical illusion. Specifically, the wagon-wheel effect, where something spins forward so fast that it appears to be moving in reverse.
Kim Bora’s semi-autobiographical (or at least age-aligned) debut is set in Seoul circa 1994. A tightly coiled 14-year-old girl named Eun-hee (Park Ji-hoo) looks for solid ground while her anxious middle class family strives for a higher foothold, as their nation embraces a democratic future and the social mobility that it promises. Heady as that may sound, Bora’s long and delicate film is tapped into its heroine’s sense of becoming in such a way that it feels more diaristic than historical, even when the final act hinges on a real tragedy that affected Seoul in October 1994. Like any teenager, of any time, Eun-hee just wants to be at peace with who she is in a world that seemingly refuses to let her. Bora pierces that loneliness with the slow grace of sunlight melting through a treeline, and despite some occasional dithering her movie sinks into your skin like few other examples of its kind.
The first moments in “House of Hummingbird” lay the groundwork for the simmering domestic strife to come. Shot with the intimacy of a handheld confessional, the opening scene begins with Eun-hee returning home after another day of 8th grade only to find herself locked out of her family’s apartment on the umpteenth floor of some anonymous tower. “I’m here!” she wails against the door, but we’re the only ones who are able to hear her. The camera zooms out over the city to make Eun-hee look as small as she feels — it might all be too sad if not for the synth hug of Matija Strišna’s Purity Ring-adjacent score, which promises the film’s protagonist a self-understanding that still feels like it’s a long way off.
Not that Eun-hee is all that eager to get inside — there isn’t much love waiting for her on the other side of that door. The girl’s severe dad (Jeong In-gi) makes no secret of his disappointment in her lack of academic discipline, or in the fact that he’s put most of the family’s chips on Eun-hee’s abusive older brother, who smacks her like he’s passing down some kind of birthright. Eun-hee’s mom knows from experience how suffocating it can be when the sexism is coming from inside the house, but she doesn’t have the heart to speak up for her daughter (“you kids need to stop fighting” she says with evident shame after Eun-hee is hit by her brother yet again).
It also doesn’t help that her dad has already lost hope for Eun-hee’s older sister Su-hee (Park Soo-yeon), a somewhat sympathetic party girl who sneaks in and out of the movie the same way she does from the family’s apartment each night. Posed around the dinner table or counting their earnings in a circle on the living room floor, the scenes where they’re all together are as volatile and fractured as a sheet of broken glass.
Things aren’t all that much better at school, where Eun-hee — who dreams of drawing comics one day — doodles in the margins of her notepad while her teacher rants about work ethic and demands his students rat out the delinquents in their class. “Repeat after me,” he barks: “Instead of karaoke, I will go to Seoul National University!” When she falls asleep at her desk, some bratty classmates announce that “dumb girls like her don’t make it to college and they become our housemaids.” At least Eun-hee has a gawky boyfriend (Jeong Yoon-seo) who sends her love notes on her pager — period details are emphasized sparingly and with the same organic grace they were in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” — and a partner-in-crime named Yu-ri (Seol Hye-in) who’s got all the same bruises and offers the kind of friendship that may hint at something more. Bora doesn’t underline Eun-hee’s bisexuality (the character doesn’t question it, and no one else seems interested enough in her life to care), but it’s crucial to the texture of a movie in which anyone might have the power to change everything.
The most obvious candidate: Young-ji (Kim Sae-byuk), Eun-hee’s alluring and aloof new tutor in Chinese. She’s the kind of character who feels like a memory — all soft edges and warm mystery. Eun-hee might not have a knack for languages, but Young-ji’s most urgent lessons never get lost in translation. “It takes some time to learn to like yourself,” she tells her students, girls whose lack of agency has already started curdling into self-hatred. One night they walk by the husk of an overdeveloped apartment building, and Eun-hee can’t help but comment on how cold and sad they look. “Don’t pity them,” Young-ji replies, “we don’t know anything.” It’s around that time that Eun-hee stops pitying herself, as Park’s tender shiv of a lead performance sharpens to the point where her character becomes capable of defending herself.
In a less assured movie, Young-ji’s sweet wisdom might seem a bit too easy, but “House of Hummingbird” is so wide and deceptively static that most of its contrivances are stretched flat over the course of the 138-minute runtime. Others, like the cyst growing behind Eun-hee’s ear, are removed once they serve their purpose of conflating personal milestones with political events. However lugubrious that length can feel, it allows Bora’s film to flow at the speed of self-actualization, and to stay in the air like the bird alluded to in its title; so much is happening that it seems like nothing is happening at all. And no matter how fast history careens forward, Eun-hee won’t be left behind.
Sensitive and lived-in and strong in ways that a more forceful version of this story could never have been, Bora’s debut sketches a portrait of a girl coming into her own strength, and learning to see the blank page of her life as an opportunity rather than a death sentence. Thinking ahead to her career as a graphic novelist, Eun-hee hopes that her readers “will find the strength in my stories to get through their loneliness.” And why not? Her audience already has.
Well Go USA will release “House of Hummingbird” through virtual cinemas on Friday, June 26.