How is a house constructed? Is it through divisions, through walls built to support roofs and floors? Is it hidden in the cracked paint or glass? Or is a house not built through scaffolding, rather, through communications within? Perhaps it is through the yells, the knocks, the mail slipped in through the door. Bora Kim’s House of Hummingbird maps the creation of homes in the life of adolescent Eun-hee (Ji-hun Park) as she grows within herself.
At one point in the film, Eun-hee and her sister lay in their shared bed, trying to sleep. “Why is our family so messed up?” whispers Eun-hee as she drifts. “We should all live separately,” responds her sister, in an effort to ease Eun-hee’s anxieties of the threats she faces at home. Eun-hee’s familial house is aggressive: she is frequently beat by her brother, Daehoon, her parents have physical conflicts, and the tone of the house dialogue is biting. While they are passive about Daehoon’s abuse, Eun-hee’s mother and father criticise their three children in their educational and personal lives in attempts to regain control of parenthood. In discussion with a friend, Eun-hee even mentions the idea of attempting suicide with a note that says her brother caused her to commit the act.
School isn’t much better. Over and over, similar to an anthem, the school kids must chant, “Instead of karaoke I will go to Seoul National University.” They are drilled to be successful scholars and socialites, but Eun-hee is voted the biggest delinquent by her peers. She struggles socially, as most do around eighth grade, from spitting after kisses to botched shoplifting attempts. The upside of school is Ms. Yong-ji (Sae-byeok Kim), Eun-hee’s ethereal Chinese language teacher. Yong-ji is cool and collected. At the same time, she’s vulnerable enough to connect with a confused, unstable Eun-hee. Yong-ji serves as a guidance counsellor for her young companion. She teaches Eun-hee that she need not always love herself, but instead to constantly be reflecting upon her actions and condition.
More than any other force in the film, House of Hummingbird is carried by its sounds. Eun-hee enjoys drawing, adding consistent scratches and scribbles of pencils on paper. Different homes in which Eun-hee resides are characterised by different noises. At her family’s house, we hear doors banging and slamming, glass shattering, yelling. Most prominently, though, her apartment is filled with chewing, crunching, and the tap of chopsticks to plates at the dinner table. We hear her feet tap pavement as she walks to school, the subtle pour of tea into a cup by Ms. Yong-ji. House of Hummingbird effortlessly creates the world of Eun-hee, and invites us to stay and listen to the pleasing mundanities in her young life.
In her first feature-length film, Kim masterfully creates the exhausting scope of a young teen’s life. It is a quiet piece, but one also full of laughs, resentment, and tragedy under the surface. The narrative focuses on the holistic growth of Eun-hee, but also develops narratives in the city of Seoul in 1994, in Eun-hee’s peers, in abuse, and in the fragility of loss. House of Hummingbird is tedious and burning, but then again, so is being 13. Frequently, the film jumps from emotion to emotion, mood swinging like a pendulum, similar to that of a young girl. Eun-hee has personality — but not one distinct enough for her to feel comfortable. She is characterised by her bright yellow Benetton backpack, juxtaposed against her standard school uniform.
In her first encounter with Ms. Yong-ji, Eun-hee states that her favourite thing to do is create comics. She is an artist. As she flutters from home to home, she ultimately finds one in Yong-ji, and in the stories she creates on paper. After the two part ways, Yong-ji sends Eun-hee a new sketchbook to continue creating new narratives.
by Fletcher Peters