Sunday, May 1, 2022

On the Tender Precision of Kim Bora's Directorial Debut House of Hummingbird

(Kim Bora, South Korea, 2018, not rated, 138 minutes)

Nothing about House of Hummingbird feels vague or ill-defined. For 14-year-old Seoul schoolgirl Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu, remarkably affecting), every day offers a new possibility for terror or triumph. 

It's the fate of adolescents the world over, but first-time feature filmmaker Kim Bora makes it clear that even the most seemingly ordinary teenage lives can be incredibly complicated. Eun-hee's parents (3-Iron's Lee Seung-Yun and Jeong In-gi) never went to college, so they pressure her and her older brother, Dae-hoon (All of Us Are Dead's Son Sang-yeon), to get good grades. They appear to have given up on middle child Su-hee (Park Su-yeon), who would rather sneak out to see her boyfriend than to study. 

It's 1994, a pivotal year in Korean history, and all three kids help out at the family rice cake stall. Dae-hoon deals with the pressure by beating up on Eun-hee. When she tells her parents, they refuse to acknowledge that he's the problem and not her. The benefits of patriarchal privilege are clear (it's cold comfort, but her best friend, Park Seo-yoon's Ji-suk, has an equally abusive older brother). 

Eun-hee also has a boyfriend, Ji-wan (Jung Yoon-seo), with whom she shares her first kiss and a mixtape to celebrate their 21-month anniversary, but when his mother claims she isn't good enough for him, he neglects to defend her, leading her to wonder if it might be time to move on. 

Schoolmates also make fun of her for dozing off between classes, except she's on the go from morning to night. 

Her parents have only been adding to her stress with their increasingly unruly altercations over her father's infidelity. Then Eun-hee notices a lump behind her ear. Her doctor orders a biopsy, after which he informs her that she'll need surgery. If anything goes wrong, she could end up with permanent facial paralysis. 

One day, she arrives at her Chinese cram class to find Young-ji (Kim Sae-byuk), a new tutor. Eun-hee is fascinated by her unfussy demeanor and the way she talks to her like an equal and not a child. She listens to what she has to say and thinks carefully before responding. It's a new experience for Eun-hee, who has learned to expect the worst from adults, like the grim homeroom teacher who declares, "Today is the first day until your death!" 

Time spent with Young-ji becomes intoxicating, except nothing lasts forever. 

Eun-hee has a surgical appointment on the way, an uncle who risks drinking himself to death, and an encoaching real-life disaster that will threaten to undo all of the progress she's started to make. 

Kim avoids melodrama as Eun-hee faces one challenge after another, sometimes with grace, sometimes the opposite. If she isn't a hero, she isn't a victim either, thanks to Young-ji's influence. One person who just takes the time to listen can make all the difference. "Will my life shine one day?," Eun-hee wonders. It may not happen as soon as she would like, but her life only seems likely to grow brighter with time. Highest recommendation. 

House of Hummingbird is available on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber and on streaming via the usual pay operators--it's also free on Pluto TV. Images from LetterboxdSIFF, MUBI, and The Hollywood Reporter.

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