“Among all the people you know, how many really know what’s going on inside you?” Eun-hee’s compassionate cram school tutor, Young-ji asks her tenderly in writer/director Bora Kim’s poignant coming of age drama “House of Hummingbird.” Set in Seoul, Korea, 1994, “House of Hummingbird,” is a striking debut; a painfully honest exploration of queer adolescence that feels a little like a feminist neo-realist film. Its subtle shooting style and elliptical structure may be somewhat difficult for certain moviegoers to follow, but it’s an exceptionally confident first feature about a girl who feels out of step with her peers, the world around her, and who fears for her ability to feel and accept herself. It’s a heartbreaking and moving movie full of torn signs and collapsed structures.
Framed around a series of specific cultural events, including the FIFA World Cup, 14-year-old Eun-hee (Jin-hu Park) is accused by others of always being stuck in her own head, but often ignored or berated whenever she aims to be considerate. Her best friend likes Calvin Klein and she likes comic books. A strange lump seems to be forming below her ear. When she tells her mother, she is chided for not pointing the ailment out sooner. After going back to the doctor for a follow-up appointment, to address her health concern, the physician acts annoyed Eun-hee took so long in returning and then tells her that the trip was a waste because he needs written parental consent for the procedure he is recommending.
She’s soon informed that she needs surgery to remove the anomaly, but that there is the risk that her face could become paralyzed from the procedure. Eun-hee is also being beaten by her brother at home, is wrestling between a recent karaoke club crush, and her complicated relationships with other friends and family. It isn’t until she gets a new private teacher, Young-ji (Sae-byeok Kim), before Eun-hee begins to see; the fine line between harsh and heartfelt communication comes down to personal understanding.
We can find strength through the stories of others in times of loneliness. Eun-hee’s new friend and mentor also enjoys comics, and aids in reinvigorating her dream of growing up to be a cartoonist. It would be lovely if there was more of this artistic motivation driving the narrative, but the movie is juggling so many motifs that its understated nuance is admissible and possibly quite intentional.
When adults extort the innocence of children, threatening to turn them in to authorities, or insinuate physical punishment, what can the child feel but fear? If one has been struck by a bamboo sword or golf club often enough, and been hit harder any time they’ve resisted, one learns not to fight back so as not to sustain a rougher beating. “Just apologize and be a good student.” Wear enough bandages, see enough lamps break; shame, anger, and disapproval will bring out the worst thoughts in you. Tell the wrong person you want to be a ghost for a day after you die, just so you can see those who have hurt you suffer, feel the same pain you have, and soon the whole school might think you’ve gone crazy.
“House of Hummingbird” is a work that cares about how important it is to express empathy and understanding. It’s an incredibly powerful first film that shouldn’t be missed, simultaneously capturing the feeling of both desperate isolation and human warmth. It’s a little long (138 minutes) and its length is felt, but the film’s measured pace has a precise impact. An isolated incident can sever a tight bond or forge a brand new one, and Bora Kim’s movie questions this delicate paradox most impressively.
The world is “full of people whose faces we know, but how many do we really understand?” Sharing part of who you are with someone you care about is a strong feeling. No one can really know you other than yourself, and if you’re always being told there must be something wrong with you, it’s not so easy to accept that. Something one person has expressed appreciation for – something as simple as rice cakes – can be the precise reason another causes you great pain. Learning how to be assertive, when to be emotional, who to open your heart to, does not come so easily, especially if you’ve been ridiculed almost every time you speak up. You can’t touch someone the same way after they’re gone, Kim’s film is a compassionate piece on interpersonal connection that’ll touch your heart when it’s at its most vulnerable. [A-]