In a year when world movie fans finally woke up to the consistent brilliance of Korean cinema through the vehicle of Parasite, it should probably be noted that in South Korea itself the movie that vied with Parasite in 2019 as the finest of the year, at least among critics, was the indie debut House of Hummingbird by Kim Bora. Purists will say that comparing the two films is a chump’s game, since Parasite is high-concept while Hummingbird is personal. They don’t compete on the same playing field, especially in South Korea where parameters like genre and financial backing have more meaning than they do in other film markets. But to those of us outside of Korea, the two movies have more in common than they do to people inside Korea, and having seen both in South Korea, albeit 12 months apart, I found Hummingbird more affecting and, even now, more memorable.
It’s a classic, almost formulaic coming-of-age story, and the fact that Kim has been developing it for a decade (it started out as a 2011 short) is apparent in its length and leisurely pacing (138 minutes). In 1994, Eun-hee (Park Ji-hoo) is 14 years old and struggling to assert an identity that no one seems to care about. Her violent, frustrated father (Jung In-gi) and diffident mother (Lee Seung-yeon) are fixated on Eun-hee’s older brother (Son Sang-yeon), who is preparing for university despite his own problems with anger-management. Her older sister (Bak Su-yeon) is painfully withdrawn. Eun-hee, the sole object of Kim’s camera throughout the film, is an island of fleeting complexity in an apartment that feels both cramped and foreign to her sensibility. She has a best friend (Park Sae-yun) with whom she falls in and out of favor, and a boyfriend (Jeong Yun-seo) with whom she experiments sexually, but in the long run she is more comfortable with the shy female classmate, Yuri (Seol Hyein), who seems to have a crush on Eun-hee, and her calligraphy teacher Young-ji (Kim Sae-Byuk), a philosophical, rebellious type who seems to get as much out of teaching Eun-hee as Eun-hee gets out of just sitting in Young-ji’s class absorbing her freedom-loving vibe.
Though most of the dramatic plot points—suffering a serious illness, moving past a death in the family, learning from a serious faux pas (shoplifting)—are standard fare for coming-of-age stories, Kim positions them in an emotional environment that feels fully inhabited. Eun-hee’s troubled home life, informed mainly by her father’s infidelities and her sister’s abject, silent misery, is so finely textured as to be almost tactile. And her interactions with her friends and teachers are delineated by conversations that have more to do with character than plot development. More significantly, Kim is not afraid to pinpoint Eun-hee’s specialness in her capacity for what can only be called small eruptions of happiness, because such moments have as much to do with gaining maturity as the so-called hard knocks of life. The climactic tragedy that is required of all coming-of-age stories is thus given a context that brings the movie to a quietly devastating conclusion. Because this tragedy is couched in a real-life disaster, it will definitely have more resonance for Korean viewers, but anyone will understand its significance. The first time I saw it I left the theater drained; the second time, elated.
In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Shibuya Euro Space (03-3461-0211).
House of Hummingbird home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2018 Epiphany Films