The American film landscape isn’t lacking for coming of age films, particularly those of the female teenage experience. Bora Kim’s lyrical debut feature film House of Hummingbird explores similar themes half a world away, following South Korean teenager Eunhee (Ji-hu Park) as she navigates a turbulent home life, demanding school work and budding relationships, all while trying to figure out where she fits in along the way. Set in 1994, the film incorporates that year’s newsworthy events in the country (the death of Kim Il-Sung; a bridge collapse that killed more than two dozen people) as plot points that shift Eunhee’s world and help her evolve from a lost little girl without much of a voice to a burgeoning young woman with something to say.
The youngest of three siblings, Eunhee is in the eighth grade at a school focused on Chinese curriculum; her older sister and brother each go to separate schools pursuing their own studies, while their parents work at their stall in the local mall. It’s a tumultuous home life, her parents constantly fighting with each other or harping on the kids. Eunhee’s brother, the oldest, takes the brunt of their father’s unrealistic expectations, in turn taking it out by beating Eunhee each time she crosses him. She finds solace with her best friend and classmate, Ji-Suk (Seo-yoon Park), her boyfriend and a young teacher, Yong-ji (Sae-byeok Kim), who comes to be a sort of mentor and friend when she needs someone to turn to. Kim, who also wrote the script, weaves in quite a lot of narrative to Eunhee’s life in addition to her relationships, including discovering a small lump behind her ear and the resulting medical appointments to investigate it. Combined with Park’s beautifully thoughtful performance, it all creates a profoundly deep exploration of feminine youth.
As Eunhee (presumably the hummingbird of the title) flits from interaction to interaction, we watch her learn and grow with each. Her boyfriend is sweet on her one minute, then stops returning her calls the next; she’s caught shoplifting with Ji-Suk and the friendship fractures when Ji-Suk rats on Eunhee; she goes alone to get a biopsy for the lump, no one there to hold her hand during the procedure. Through it all, she soldiers on, facing each new turmoil with, if not resolve, something akin to perseverance—there’s no other way to go but forward, so she continues in that general direction. Her talks with Yong-ji help, as the teacher helps her see there’s something on the other side of all the uncertainty and abuse, and soon Eunhee is coming out of her shell. After dinner one night, her parents shouting at each other about their youngest daughter who just can’t seem to be controlled (though nothing Eunhee does is ever really anything near dangerous rebellion), she’s finally had enough: she starts to scream and shout, jumping around and making such a scene that her parents are startled into stopping what they’re fighting about to see what’s the matter. It’s the first time we see a bit of a crack in the dam behind which Eunhee’s been holding all her emotions; she even finally admits to her parents that her brother’s been beating her.
The film clocks in at a lengthy two hours and eighteen minutes, and Kim takes all the time in the world with Eunhee’s evolution. She’s not only not in any hurry to see her protagonist grow up, it’s as if she wants to take extra time with the most formative moments (many of them internal and reflective) in order to let them land just so with the audience. While it’s possible some of Eunhee’s journey could’ve been left in the edit bay, the film never feels overly long. By the third act, when all we’ve learned about her along the way comes to the surface—she’s become empathetic, she’s truly connecting with people, she’s willing to say what’s on her mind—it’s as if we’re watching someone entirely new step into her teenage years. She’s learned life lessons, she’s found her own footing, and she’s on her way.