From the opening minutes of House of Hummingbird through most of its nearly two-and-a-half-hour duration, teenage protagonist Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) seems on the verge of detonation or defeat. In the introduction, she knocks frantically on an apartment door, shouting for her mom, increasingly tearful as she struggles with bags in the entryway. After a moment, she looks up at the unit number—towering cruelly over her in an upper level of a crowded high-rise—only to realize she’s on the wrong floor.

Similarly sharp realizations pervade a series of poignant scenes revealing sudden shifts from youthful pleasure to physical and psychological danger. Close friends become traitors, romantic partners switch cliques, goofy siblings turn into abusers. In the hands of newcomer writer/director/producer Kim Bora, who brought the project to fruition over seven years (including an off-and-on, three-year casting process to find the right actress for Eun-hee), adolescence has never felt so precarious or so impossible to endure in silence.

House of Hummingbird takes place in Seoul 1994, also a time of precariousness in South Korean history, as the country sought to modernize rapidly for the sake of competing with other nations in Asian and global markets. Although the period promised economic improvement, the changes left many Koreans behind, including inhabitants of a dilapidated housing area presented in solemnly panning camera movements, that Eun-hee passes on her way to school. “THIS IS MY HOME, AGAINST REDEVELOPMENT,” reads a banner hanging outside the structure. The threat of diminishment or destruction by larger systems hovers over the movie like a murky shadow.

The family members labor ceaselessly, putting in hours of work at their rice cake factory, studying for exams and learning Chinese and English. They are staying afloat in their anonymous flat above the city, but barely. There’s the aforementioned abuse of the brother (whose methods Eun-hee calls “fucking diverse,” in one of her many sarcastic quips, heartbreakingly perceptive), the sister’s covert partying, the father’s implied affair (which culminates in an explosive fight) and the mother’s grief over the death of a relative that happens early in the film, not to mention the parents’ pressures on all three children. The logical extension of any of these aspects promises a bleaker future as the most likely consequence.

Eun-hee, played by Park in a performance of great sensitivity and insight, courageously holds her own. We see her public face of eye-averting quietude as she tests out connections of affection and desire with boys and girls alike, as well as her humor and candor when in the company of true confidants. Along the way, we get multiple close-ups of written exchanges, fiercely expressive documents of mockery, questions and sketches that she trades with one significant ally, Ji-sook (Park Seo-yoon). These hint at her career ambition to be a comics artist, a revelation of self meaningfully encouraged by her college-student Chinese instructor, Yong-ji (Kim Sae-byuk), a thoughtful yet forthright mentor who does more to support our heroine’s personal growth than her exhausted, demanding parents would ever think to.

In fact, Yong-ji is central to the careful balance of subtlety and directness here, its combination of quiet observation and unflinching resistance, undoubtedly one of House of Hummingbird’s greatest strengths. Kim, using incidents from her own youth as a starting point, has discussed the film as a portrayal of “a toxic way of loving.” This is another reason why Eun-hee’s relationship with Yong-ji is crucial: it represents an assertive alternative to the indelicate, restrictive techniques of figures like a middle school teacher that has the students vote on the class’ most delinquent member, or the father, who willfully ignores his son’s callous brutishness and, in one anxiety-inducing narrative path, his daughter’s health condition. Yong-ji, by contrast, helps her recognize the detriment of becoming desensitized to harm and the importance of appreciating even the smallest gesture of agency.

House of Hummingbird is gorgeously shot in a variety of faded-out beige, slate, tan and coral compositions, which provide a sense of both the micro (such as Eun-hee’s facial expressions, which quickly move from downcast to joyous when speaking with a person she trusts, and the wood-furnished interiors of the family apartment) and the macro levels (such as Seoul’s ashen skyline and glowing oases of green space) of Kim’s exploration of the past. Both the traumatic experiences of the nation and Eun-hee’s numerous wounds at the hands of those around her intertwine. Terrible loss forcibly impacts both parties and uncovers a key difference in their development, with our protagonist gradually blossoming in emotional intelligence and South Korea in a position of reflection that would attempt to persist against forces of so-called forward progress in the decades to come.

The joy of watching House of Hummingbird involves noticing the possibility of a brighter future growing up in response to the masculine, oppressive powers-that-be. A triumph of keenly observed filmmaking, it intimately illustrates an ethics of awareness, generosity and rage, even in the face of apathy.

The joy of watching House of Hummingbird involves noticing the possibility of a brighter future growing up in response to the masculine, oppressive powers-that-be
86 %
Heartbreakingly perceptive
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