I wasn’t sure what to expect from this first feature by writer-director Kim Bora. Like the other recent South Korean film by a woman, The House of Us by Yoon Ga-eun, which I saw at the London Film Festival, House of Hummingbird is a potential family melodrama that evolves more into the story of a young teenage girl. Nick saw the film at the London Fest and was a little disappointed. I was pleasantly surprised.
Eun-hee, the central character is an eight grader in middle school which makes her around 14 in the Korean system I think (and therefore three years older than the girl in House of Us). She isn’t enjoying school and her slightly older siblings, both still at school, are not very friendly towards her. Her father runs a food shop specialising in rice products and works long hours and her mother seems rather distracted when not preparing food for the family. The year is 1994 and Eun-hee ignores the first two major events of the year – the Northern leader Kim Il-sung dies and South Korea play in the World Cup in the US. This is in contrast to the third major event which affects her very badly – but more of that later.
The film is slow-paced and perhaps over-long (138 minutes) for a narrative with relatively little narrative incident. But this does mean that we get to know Eun-hee in some depth. During the two semesters of her school year she has her first boyfriend, two separate relationships with girls in her class/year and a medical issue. As in most ‘real lives’ none of these three interactions come to much but Eun-hee does learn something about each of them and about herself. Certainly she gets more from meeting her friends than she gets from the members of her family. The context of a rapidly industrialising Korean society, now over the politically fraught times of the 1980s, is sketched in carefully. The building boom leads to a protest near her home by residents who refuse to move for re-development. At school the pressure for education attainment is being ratcheted up. Eun-hee’s terrifying teacher has the class chanting about going to university and not visiting karaoke bars. It reminded me of the worst excesses of our local girls’ school which forbade girls going out in the evening. Ironically, it is one of the elements of this new high pressure educational culture that offers Eun-hee hope of something more fulfilling.
Eun-hee attends an after school Chinese ‘cramming class’ with her friend. One day the usual teacher is replaced by a woman in her early thirties, a mature student at the university. This is Yong-ji (Kim Sae-byeok) who seems both approachable and laid-back – calm and almost zen-like. Eun-hee is smitten. Yong-ji provides support when it is needed, making tea and offering advice. Eun-hee brightens considerably and in that way that perspectives change so quickly at 14, she sees herself becoming a cartoonist (or rather a graphic artist). Yong-ji is an attractive character but she also carries a sense of fragility and I was worried immediately that something might happen to her – and that’s where the third news incident comes in.
Reading through various reviews, the film receives praise for its clear-eyed view of life for a young girl in Seoul in 1994. But the descriptions vary. For some Eun-hee’s life is bleak and the family is dysfunctional. There are indeed some family tragedies and two incidents that suggest that Eun-hee is not being cared for or supported as she should be. There is domestic violence and the medical condition she develops is handled badly by the family. But I’m not sure how we are meant to read these incidents. Are they a critique of 1990s Korean society? Father appears to be over-worked and the few occasions when the family help out in the shop seem like genuine moments of co-operation. Perhaps the narrative is simply giving us Eun-hee’s perspective on what happens to her in 1994? If the film had been half an hour shorter and more tightly edited, I wonder if this would be seen as European-style ‘social realism’? The Korean audience seems to have found the film interesting as it earned nearly $1 million from its 154 screen opening in the country to go alongside its journey through many overseas film festivals. The film is described by critics (and the director) as a ‘coming of age’ film. But it certainly isn’t a genre film. Coming of age is not a useful term. Some of us don’t ‘come of age’ until we are in our 20s. Instead it is a growing up film about a particular year.
In the interview below from the Busan festival, the director explains why she chose the title (it makes total sense to me now and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t work it out before). If this gets a release in the UK I would recommend it.