South Korean film “House of Hummingbird”, which received the Grand Prix of the Generation 14plus International Jury when it was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, observes a young ordinary girl’s life in specific place and period, but it eventually comes to us a universal coming-of-age tale packed with small but powerful moments. At first, I wondered a bit about why many critics have been so enthusiastic about the movie, but then I found myself emotionally involved in its adolescent heroine’s small world more than expected during the next 90 minutes, and that was why I was surprised as observing how strongly I reacted to what is superbly presented during the rest of the movie.
The story mainly revolves around the daily life of Eun-hee (Park Ji-hoo), a 14-year-old girl who lives with her middle-class family in some neighborhood area of Seoul, 1994. As the youngest child in the family, she usually does not get much attention compared to her two older siblings, and we see how unhappy she is in her family home from time to time. While her father is sometimes too harsh to her and her two older siblings, her mother is usually busy with trying to maintain the status quo in their home, and they often pay lots of attention to the future of their oldest child just because, well, he is their only son. As mostly overlooked by their parents, Eun-hee and her older sister frequently become rebellious in each own way, and that accordingly leads to a series of unpleasant situations in their home.
At least, Eun-hee feels a bit happier while she is outside. Although she and her schoolmates are about to be ground by that demanding process of the South Korean education system, she has a close friend to hang around with, and she and her friend share a lot between them during their private moments. Later in the story, we get a lovely scene where they are simply having a fun as jumping together on a trampoline, and that took me back to my own sweet memories of playing on trampoline.
In addition, Eun-hee also has a boyfriend, who seems to like her a lot as shown from his tentative interaction with her. When she suggests that they go a little further in their burgeoning relationship, he does not mind at all even though he is as inexperienced as she is, and that leads to one of small humorous moments in the film.
However, things get slowly worse for Eun-hee as days go by. The mood among her and her family becomes more tense as they conflict more and more with each other, and it also turns out that Eun-hee’s friend has her own domestic problem as reflected by the scene where she suddenly wears a mask to cover her mouth for an understandable reason. Furthermore, Eun-hee feels hurt when she discovers that her boyfriend’s attention is being drawn to someone else, and that prompts her to lean more on a junior girl who seems to want from her more than plain friendship.
Meanwhile, the mood becomes a little brighter for Eun-hee when she comes to find an unexpected source of care and attention from Yeong-ji (Kim Sae-buk), the new teacher at a Chinese writing academy which Eun-hee and her friend usually go after their schooltime. Right from her first day, Yeong-ji leaves an indelible impression on Eun-hee, and this gentle and generous young lady often provides solace and comfort to Eun-hee, who is surely grateful for Yeong-ji’s kindness and empathy as spending more time with her.
As Eun-hee is struggling with the confusing changes in her small world, the screenplay by director/writer Kim Bo-ra, which is developed from her previous short film “The Recorder Exam” (2011), steadily rolls its story and heroine from what has been carefully established during its first act. The period atmosphere and details in the film are often impressive for mundane authenticity, and, without resorting to any cheap sentimentality or nostalgia, it did a superlative job of taking me back to Seoul during the early 1990s. For example, I particularly appreciated a certain small object containing sewing material and tools, which is incidentally not so different from what my mother had during that period.
I will not go into details on what will happen during the last act of the film, but I can tell you instead that the movie effectively utilizes two big real-life incidents well as dramatic elements in the story. Although I was only 11 years old during that time, I still remember well how much people around me were surprised and shocked by these two incidents respectively, and I admire how the movie handles them with considerable restraint without any cheap melodramatic tactics.
As the heart and soul of the film, Park Ji-hoo, who deservedly received the Best Actress award when the movie was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival early in this year (It also won the Best International Narrative Feature award and the Best Cinematography award, by the way), is utterly astounding in her unadorned natural performance full of subtle nuances and touches, and she is also supported well by a number of good performers. While Jung In-gi, Lee Seung-yeon, Park Soo-yeon, and Son Yong-beom are solid as Eun-hee’s family members, Park Seo-yoon and Seol Hye-in are also fine in their respective substantial supporting roles, and Kim Sae-byuk, who drew my attention for the first time with her breakout turn in “A Midsummer’s Fantasia” (2014), flawlessly complements Park during their several scenes in the film.
On the whole, “House of Hummingbird” is one of the notable debut feature films of this year in South Korea, and, in my trivia opinion, it is another excellent South Korean film of this year which definitely deserves to be mentioned along with “February” (2017), “Another Child” (2019), “The House of Us” (2019), and, yes, “Parasite” (2019). So far, considering these and many other good South Korean films in this year, it has been one hell of exciting year for me and other South Korean audiences, and I hope we will get more funs and surprises during the rest of 2019.