For some strange reason, coming-of-age films tend to be some of the most universal films around and some of the easiest to sell internationally. Or maybe it isn’t that strange really now that I think of it, since coming-of-age can be something very unique and personal yet also universal at the same time. We all grow up virtually the same way, we fall in love, we have friends, we quarrel with our family members sometimes etc. These examples don’t represent everyone of course, but my point is that a lot of us experience a lot of the same things in our youth, and lives sometimes. But it’s the culture that we grow up in and our environment that shapes us as well as the people around us. And those two opposing forces, the universality of our experiences yet the personal nature of our cultural upbringing, are the stuff that the finest coming-of-age films are made of, like Kim Bora’s directorial debut House of Hummingbird from 2018, which is currently being released in Sweden so that’s why I’m reviewing it now.
House of Hummingbird concerns itself with young Eun-hee, who’s at the tender age of fourteen. Fourteen is quite a transitional year in one’s life as we see in the film, she’s roughly halfway through junior high school, and she’s starting to make the transition from being a child that needs care to a grown-up (or adolescent in this case) who must act much more independently in the world. This is exemplified beautifully in the opening scene, as she rings the bell to her apartment but her mother doesn’t open the door. She keeps screaming for her to open the door, but there is no response. She must take action on her own and try to act and think for herself and start embarking on her own journey in life. But South Korean society was (or still is perhaps) a rather patriarchal society that doesn’t make life easy for women. Eun-hee struggles with her English pronunciation, which a classmate later whispers to her friends “she’ll only amount to a cleaning lady”, and sibling abuse is revealed as quite common, with both Eun-hee and her best friend suffering regular beatings from their elder brothers. She has a boyfriend, but is starting to feel attracted to a girl named Yuri, making her unsure of her sexual identity.
At home, she must deal with parents who are somewhat neglectful of her and her siblings, but not neglectful because they don’t love their children, neglectful because they spend so much time trying to make life easier for them and getting them into the proper schools that they sometimes forget to be supportive and affectionate to them. Eun-hee goes to take lessons after school, and meets her teacher Yong-ji, and a bond is formed. This isn’t treated like most student-teacher bonds are treated like in most movies, it’s represented as something real yet unique,above all to Eun-hee. They talk about pain and self-loathing, and through their shared bond, Eun-hee starts to grow as a person. The both of them being women I think underscores this. In certain, if not most instances, men understand men better and women understand women better than the opposite gender never could. There is a relatability that is unique to each gender, and that is prescient in this relationship.
But the film isn’t merely a literal coming-of-age for Eun-hee, it’s also a coming-of-age for South Korea as well. In the film, we see Eun-hee’s teacher drill into them the importance of studying and of getting into university, stating that studying is more important than having any sort of fun. Director Kim Bora described this as a “capitalist” form of happiness, which I think is a lovely way of putting it. We also see signs of people protesting getting evicted from their houses, we hear people discuss the 1994 World Cup, and people react to the death of Kim Il-sung, the dictator of North Korea. There’s also a historic event that proves a key dramatic turning point later on the film, which I don’t wish to give away since I was unaware of it and was taken by surprise. South Korea was transitioning from autocracy to proper democracy, and we see all of this, all the good and all the bad that comes with such a radical change. It gives the film a blend of social realism that one normally doesn’t find in coming-of-age films, and I find that commendable.
This was Kim Bora’s directorial debut and this is a most confident debut. I’m not familiar with her other work (I believe she is an artist by trade and made an earlier short film that was the basis for this film), but Bora established herself as a director to watch with this film. She doesn’t go for traditional coverage like most movies are comprised of today (at least the ones from Hollywood which is another reason to watch more indies or foreign films), she rather settles for longer takes, slow push-ins and unique camera angles that give a naturalistic feeling to the setting without ever feeling over-stylized or unrealistic. It helps ground the characters and the events in the film in a way that one would perhaps expect from most seasoned filmmakers, not necessarily from a first-timer, which makes it even more impressive of a debut.
If there’s a weakness in the film, it lies in its length, but oddly enough this isn’t simply a case of “it’s too long” or “the pacing sucked.” In fact, the film has relatively good pacing and I was never left bored, but I felt slightly exhausted by the films 138-minute running time. I can’t imagine what scenes could be cut from the film, and frankly, I don’t think any of them should be. But at two hours and eighteen minutes, you’re facing a long film, and in my experience, coming-of-age films tend to work in slightly shorter format. I’m not saying every coming-of-age film should be exactly the same in terms of structure or length, but I think perhaps a shorter running time would help, at least in this case. It’s not something I hold against the film in a strong way, but it does affect it’s rewatchability for me, I think.
House of Hummingbird is a strong debut from a promising first-time director, and I hope to see more from Kim Bora in the future. I also hope to see more non-genre South Korean films and perhaps more films from female directors as well (you can never have enough female filmmakers). The performance from Park Ji-hoo (who plays Eun-hee which I forgot to mention) is superb and one of the better child performances I’ve seen recently. It is a film that is most certainly worth seeking out, and a film that I can see people raving about for quite some time.