HOUSE OF HUMMINGBIRD: FILM REVIEW
Bora Kim’s House of Hummingbird deeply moved me in a way that I did not expect it to. By delicately contrasting and comparing the way the film’s 14 year old protagonist sees herself with the image that others have of her, Kim crafts a full-bodied human, whose identity is a messy collage of who she thinks she is and how others perceive her. In many ways, watching House of Hummingbird felt like I was watching a God’s-eye reel of my former self.
House of Hummingbird is set in Seoul, South Korea, and revolves around an eighth grade girl named Eun-hee. The film shows different sides to Eun-hee (Ji-hu Park)’s life, from the person she becomes as soon as she steps through her front door, to being the quiet, unintelligent kid her classmates gossip about at school. As Eun-hee navigates her adolescence, she faces various turning points that shape the way she approaches the world, whether it's forming a close connection with her Chinese teacher or being physically abused by her brother.
Bora Kim is incredible at breaking down the notion of “the self,” and revealing the impossible nature of answering the question, “who are you?” Eun-hee is not constrained to one version of herself, as we see her mood and actions shift depending on who she is with. The shy kid that Eun-hee’s classmates define her as disappears when Eun-hee is with her friend Yuri (Hye-in Seol), as they giggle and write notes to each other during class, engaging in the playful and mischievous behavior all eighth graders do. When Eun-hee is with her boyfriend, Ji-wan (Yoon-seo Jeong), she unravels her guarded shell and even makes the first move to kiss him, bringing him up a secluded stairwell and leaning forward. Then, Eun-hee comes back home and her personality is muted. She’s no longer an individual, but rather part of a family unit, succumbing to the person her parents, brother, and sister expect her to be.
One of the most heart wrenching scenes occurs when Eun-hee comes home to a fight between her parents. Eun-hee’s dad blames her mom for not raising their kids better, and eventually a lamp is thrown. Pieces go flying everywhere and blood starts oozing down her father’s arm. Eun-hee’s sister is kneeling on the floor, crying in desperation, begging for it to stop. The next morning, Eun-hee steps into the kitchen to make breakfast and sees her parents sitting in the living room side-by-side laughing at the television. Her mom tells Eun-hee to eat. The scene is set such that it feels like nothing happened the day prior, but the camera follows Eun-hee’s gaze, which hones in on relics from yesterday’s fight: the gauze on her father’s arm, the broken lamp. These moments too are part of Eun-hee’s adolescent experience.
There are good moments as well. The relationship that Eun-hee develops with her new Chinese tutor, Young-ji (Sae-hyuk Kim), is pivotal to her positive development as an individual. For the first time, it seems like someone actually sees her for who she is. As an adolescent, and even as an adult, this feeling is difficult to come by. Young-ji teaches Eun-hee to stand up for herself and to stop letting others push her around, forming a bond between teacher and student glued together by mutual love and trust. The impact of finding a role-model figure in one’s life should never be underestimated. Young-ji is the only person who Eun-hee feels comfortable telling about her brother’s abuse. That is, until the film alludes to the fact that Yuri also might be facing physical abuse at home. These quiet moments of hushed away understandings reveal the inner battles that others face as well: the stories that makeup one’s experience that forever go untold, but whose weight manifests in one’s body nevertheless.
There are so many scenes in House of Hummingbird that I want to dissect; most made my heart quietly drop. Ji-hu Park’s performance as Eun-hee is absolutely mesmerizing and there is no doubt that she felt Eun-hee’s character in her bones. It is difficult not to. Although House of Hummingbird is a slower film with a run time of 138 minutes, it does not overstay its welcome. Kim nailed the ending, as it allowed viewers to reflect on how far Eun-hee has come and the false perceptions of reality that have dissolved in front of her.
I rarely ever cry during films, but as the credits started rolling on this one, my face was flooded with wet tears. Kim reminds us that with growing pleasures, there are also growing pains, and no one in this life is absent from either.