House of Hummingbird (2020)

Ji-hu Park stars in Bora Kim's 'House of Hummingbird.' (courtesy Well Go USA Entertainment)

You can add Bora Kim to the list of distinguished directors from South Korea, a country renowned for producing beautiful and haunting films thanks to filmmakers that include Lee Chang-dong, Park Chan-wook, Im Sang-soo, and Bong Joon-ho who gave us last year’s Oscar-winning Best Picture “Parasite.”

Kim’s striking debut “House of Hummingbird” is a coming of age film told through the eyes of 14-year old Eunhee (Ji-hu Park). She’s ignored by her family, abused by her brother, and betrayed by her close friends. It’s a part of life that we all can relate to, no matter what part of the world you grew up in.

If you sit back and think about it, middle school was traumatizing for most of us. And it was worse if you were a girl dealing with body changes, idiot boys, and life in general. For reference, check out Bo Burnham’s 2018 film “Eighth Grade” with a wonderful Elsie Fisher.

Ji-hu Park’s solemn performance as Eunhee is the high point of Kim’s debut film which gets its name from the Trochilidae family made up of the smallest and colorful birds always in search of sweetness. Like a hummingbird, Eunhee is vibrant and in need of sweetness which in this case is a synonym for kindness. She’s neglected by her parents who also turn a blind eye to her abusive brother Daehoon (Son Sangyeon) who becomes violent when Eunhee resists his oppressive behavior.

Recently I read an article about Korean families who now hope for the birth of a daughter to help take care of the parents as they age. Men usually move away and focus on their own families while women tend to become better caregivers of their elderly parents. Of course, that was not always the case. For many generations, the focus was on the son to carry on the family’s traditions and in “Hummingbird” it’s evident that Daehoon is placed in higher regard than Eunhee, which explains her parents’ neglect of his abuse, and then there’s older sister Suhee (Park Soo-yeon) who has been written off by the parents as she wanders aimlessly through life.

The film takes place in 1994 Seoul, the year that the Songsu bridge collapsed during morning rush hour. 32 people lost their lives as cars and a loaded bus plunged into the Han River. It’s the only event that places a time stamp on the film. And while that tragedy makes its way into the story it’s not the center point of the film which is filled with heartbreak but also beauty that is usually concealed only to emerge at just the right moments.

Eunhee is an artist whose work goes unnoticed until her new Chinese tutor Young-ji (Kim Sae-byuk) takes an interest in her. She becomes the only positive adult role model in her life as the two bond over their love for comics. Kim Sae-byuk’s nuanced performance is a welcomed addition to the narrative. She’s terrific opposite Ji-hu Park and the character provides the necessary attention and positivity that our young heroine craves.

Love factors into Eunhee’s life in two forms. First, there’s the awkward boy Jiwan (Jeong Yoon-seo) who is too shy to show his affection so our protagonist is forced to make the first move, and in a more interesting twist, Kim factors in a proposed female attraction from classmate Yuri (Seol Hyein) who doesn’t hide the fact that she’s interested in Eunhee. As expected, it gets complicated and then there’s best friend Jisuk (Park Saeyun) who like everyone else in the film, eventually disappoints Eunhee at a critical moment when a BFF should have your back.

“House of Hummingbird” marks an exciting debut by Bora Kim whose memories of her own life at age 14 provided the experience needed to write and produce such a poignant film. The craftsmanship on display usually comes with a more seasoned filmmaker which makes this a promising start for Kim and 16-year old actress Ji-hu Park. “Parasite” brought the world of international cinema to mainstream audiences who I hope will discover this film. The silver lining behind movie theaters shuttering is that indie and foreign films are getting the spotlight, which this film deserves.

(4 stars)

Now available to rent via Virtual Cinema at  https://www.wellgousa.com/films/house-of-hummingbird

Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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