This first feature from South Korea’s Bora Kim has already found a name for itself through various film festivals and I was lucky enough to be able to catch it at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, where it remained my favourite film seen then for the duration of my time then. But the beauty of a film like House of Hummingbird perhaps can be best described as an encapsulation of memories and how small moments can end up changing our lives to a larger scope, which is best reflected by the film’s timely setting. If anything else can best sum up what makes a film like this every bit as gorgeous as it is, there’s always something to be found in its small moments and how they define the course of what’s to come, as they slowly lead up to something of a larger scope, one that would end up shaking far more than the world that one would have already known. Nonetheless I’m still in awe that this film was a first effort behind the camera, and if anything I’m already looking forward to what Bora Kim has in store for the future.
Set in Seoul in 1994, House of Hummingbird tells the story of the fourteen-year-old Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu), a quiet girl who is still struggling to keep her own grades up and with her own family. As she continuously wanders around as a means of finding a sense of connection with any of the outside world, she also wanders around searching for places where she feels she belongs with her peers. She also builds a relationship with a new teacher named Yong-ji (Kim Sae-byeok), who takes a liking for her own talents, and soon enough what follows is a thoughtful, carefully observed coming-of-age tale told like a collection of memories that have defined an entire world around you the way you saw it. But among the best qualities that House of Hummingbird carries is the way it presents itself, because one does not have to be very familiar with South Korean culture in order to get a grasp of how the world around Eun-hee is so quickly moving – it just feels like even as an observer, you’re part of her world too and it’s also what makes her struggle feel more relatable.
Bora Kim’s slow, tender pacing only ever feels right for a story of this sort, one that wanders through how small moments define the lives of oneself – though her direction also makes a seemingly simple story feel so much more than just that. This is a film all about the feeling of self-discovery, being able to find a greater purpose with your life at your own pace despite societal pressure, especially when the world feels like it is slowly closing in on your means of existing when you can’t point out where it will take you. To the outside world, they still seem small but Bora Kim frames all of this in such a way that still creates a great resonance so that you still feel the same struggle that Eun-hee does in trying to belong. This is a world where she is pressured to exist but without finding any gain from that sort of cause. You feel the loneliness in Eun-hee’s own search for meaning as everything around her only makes her feel as if she were insignificant, and it’s also what makes the film all the more beautiful, aided by an excellent performance from Park Hi-ju.
It’s all the more wonderful thanks to how contemplative the setting makes the whole scenario out to be, because the timely setting also reflects a time period that still seems familiar to its own viewers. For some it would also invite its viewers to reflect upon how far they’ve come in the years that have passed since this one moment that came to shake up the world around them. Yet framing all of this as it happens within an adolescent’s perspective also invites Bora Kim’s viewers who are experiencing many of the same struggles to see that they won’t remain stagnated in that phase of their own lives. In the eyes of Bora Kim, Eun-hee’s search for an identity doesn’t solely stop at her finding love whether it be with another man or with her best friends, or even finding acceptance in other figures in her life when her family does not have much room for her, perhaps they may only have remained present in our lives for that one phase but they still linger with us for good reason. Kim still retains the importance of these memories in her stunning attention to detail, for it only ever sticks around like a moment you can always look back on at any other moment of your life to see once again where you found a means of starting up.
House of Hummingbird shows the entire world as crumbling upon Eun-hee but it also embraces every moment of her happiness with such care and it results in a final result that’s ever so beautiful from first frame. But beyond being a wonderful coming-of-age tale set during a year that had shaken the course of South Korea’s history (in a pivotal moment that comes back during the film’s climactic sequence), or even being any other slice-of-life drama, this film also leaves its viewers with an important message about the discovery of one’s own self-worth in their identity. You can’t rush what potential you don’t know you have just yet, but the more you wait you can see how valuable even these small moments can be for your own future. Whether they be our greatest pleasures, our greatest regrets, no matter how insignificant they may seem to the world around oneself, all you know is that it’s still a matter of what you had experienced and no one else can change that. A film that’s every bit a pleasure to watch as it may be occasionally somber, Bora Kim’s feature film debut only leaves one wanting to look out for what she has in the future. I know for a fact I’m looking forward to what she’s got next.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Epiphany Film.
Directed by Bora Kim
Screenplay by Bora Kim
Produced by Cho Zoe-sua
Starring Park Ji-hu, Kim Sae-byuk, Lee Seung-yeon, Jeong In-gi
Release Date: October 6, 2018 (South Korea)
Running Time: 138 minutes