‘House of Hummingbird’ soars in stunning, sensitive story of adolescence

Epiphany Films/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

If patience is a virtue, then “House of Hummingbird” is the reward. Seasoned and celebrated short filmmaker Bora Kim broadens her contemplative gaze in a meticulously crafted coming-of-age story about a young girl navigating the small and seismic changes in 1994 South Korea. Surprisingly, “House of Hummingbird” marks Kim’s first feature film, and she boasts credits as both its director and screenwriter. The story unfolds with narrative control atypical to a debut, evincing Kim’s unique and unwavering cinematic sensibility.

“House of Hummingbird” follows Eun-hee (portrayed by the remarkable Ji-hu Park), a curious but reserved 14 year old. She lives with her family in a compact apartment, ignored by her mother (Seung-Yun Lee), scrutinized by her father (In-gi Jeong), and dismissed and abused by her brother (Sang-yeon Son). While a negligent writer may have hollowed out Eun-hee’s family to monotonous antagonists, Kim infuses “House of Hummingbird” with candor, endowing each peripheral character with their own intimate scene that enriches their humanity. 

Beyond her physical home, Eun-hee struggles to square her own blooming values with those instilled at her rigid, achievement-oriented school. However, the young girl’s waning sense of belonging begins to change after she meets her new tutor, Yong-ji (Sae-byuk Kim). Yong-ji teaches with kindness and compassion, encouraging Eun-hee’s shy passion for drawing cartoons. Their close-knit relationship empowers Eun-hee to explore her identity, beginning a journey that will persist after she graduates eighth grade and after the film’s credits have rolled.

Behind Eun-hee’s personal development, the film is peppered with references to important moments shaping Korea in the mid-’90s, such as the sociopolitical real estate redevelopment, the death of North Korea’s leader Kim Il-sung and a devastating disaster that colors the film’s final scenes. While this treatment of history may seem hasty, Kim actually exercises remarkable and sophisticated restraint. The historic allusions demonstrate how national events ripple into the everyday, and when defamiliarized through Eun-hee’s eyes, they strengthen the film’s focus on adolescence.

Eun-hee’s and Yong-ji’s relationship rests on a well-worn premise. From “Dead Poet’s Society” to “Booksmart,” the alienated student inspired by their attentive teacher is a familiar paradigm with a predictable story arc. “House of Hummingbird,” however, elevates this trope to its best. The two actors develop their dynamic with delicacy, never expecting or embellishing sentiment beyond what is natural. Park’s performance, in particular, carries the film. Eun-hee doesn’t always feel 14 years old — often musing mature and lyrical observations and exuding existential dread — but Park portrays her with an incredible and grounding emotional nuance that makes the dubious realism easy to overlook.

“House of Hummingbird” matches its impressive performances with exquisite and poetic visuals. The camera observes Eun-hee with a sympathetic and patient eye, giving her time to explore intimacy and affection, even queerness, at her own pace. Adolescence is riddled with new experiences and emotions, and Kim sensitively reflects her protagonist’s vacillating feelings — whether it’s the awkwardness of kissing with tongue for the first time or the happiness of bouncing on a sunlit trampoline with a best friend. “House of Hummingbird” gazes at adolescence like an adult, but nonetheless, it manages to represent the fickleness in young relationships, platonic and otherwise, with astonishing accuracy.

The film appears visually preoccupied with juxtaposing brightness and darkness, but some shots fare better than others. In one scene toward the movie’s middle, the characters are lit as though they’re in the witness protection program, a distracting and seemingly out-of-place shadow eclipsing the actors’ performances.

Most of the film’s aesthetic impulses, however, are tremendous and executed with sharp precision. Kim often employs long shots, usually with mesmerizing geometric symmetry and thematic importance. She transforms reality’s natural rhythms into art, evident in the stunning shots of Eun-hee’s aesthetically sterilized school yard, where even the lush greenery blanches to a dull olive.

The film dwells on transformative moments in girlhood with laudable grace and maturity from its filmmaker. While the daunting duration of 2 hours and 18 minutes may intimidate some, “House of Hummingbird” rewards the attentive viewer with a stunning conclusion and the enthralling promise of Bora Kim’s future features.

Maya Thompson covers film. Contact her at [email protected].