“House of Hummingbird,” a South Korean tale set in 1994, is a remarkable first feature from Bora Kim, that looks at the life of a 14-year-old girl who’s going through all the awkwardness of that age.
Eun-hee (Ji-Hu Park) is the hummingbird of the title, as she seeks some kind of sweetness and validation at her all-girls school. She has a best friend there, and she has a boyfriend with whom she exchange messages via beeper, but both relationships have their problems. And she’s getting no validation at home, where she lives with an older brother who repeatedly hits her and an older sister who sulks and argues with their father and mother, who run a rice-cake shop.
They live in a featureless high-rise that’s so undistinguished that Eun-hee sometimes mistakes other apartments for her own.
And many of the girls in her class think Eun-hee rather dim, although it’s clear that she’s not. She sometimes seems to fall asleep in class, but she can hear the other girls talking about her.
“Dumb girls like that don’t make it to college, and they’ll become our house maids,” one girl says.
All of this takes place while Seoul is undergoing rapid modernization, and everyone considers it quite important to learn English and Chinese if they want to get ahead. Eun-hee doesn’t seem to have the drive to master either language. She wants emotional comfort, not the physical comforts of wealth.
Kim, the director, says the film is partly autobiographical and reflects her experiences after being hit so hard by a boy that she suffered a half-ruptured eardrum. Eun-hee has a similar ear problem, and it’s going to require surgery. And this contributes to her loneliness, since her family can’t take off time to be with her at the hospital.
Eventually, Eun-hee begins to feel that life is unraveling. And these feelings occur when the Seongsu Bridge in Seoul collapses, killing many schoolgirls.
But there is one person who offers a lifeline to Eun-hee, so to speak. It’s a new teacher, played by Sae-byuk Kim, who shares Eun-hee’s love of drawing and art. The teacher shows up rather late in the film, but her impact on Eun-hee is large.
All of this might sound rather interior and small, but the themes of “House of Hummingbird” are universal. A young girl seeks validation. She’s trying to figure out life’s meaning. And the world isn’t cooperating with her very well.
The movie, which is in Korean with English subtitles, is streaming at the Violet Crown website, austin.violetcrown.com. It originally premiered at the Busan International Film Festival and went on to play at the 69th Berlin International Film Festival.