House Of Hummingbird


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

House Of Hummingbird
"House Of Hummingbird centres on a quiet yet never passive performance from Park, who draws us into Eun-hee's world as we watch her absorbing and processing the events going on around her." | Photo: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

It may be one of the most coveted neighbourhoods in the world, but there's a flip side to living in Gangnam - at least if you're a kid. Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) has parents who are busy all the time, paying no attention to the difficulties she faces growing up or to the fact that her brother is routinely beating her to the point of causing serious injury. Even a lump in her neck doesn't get much serious attention. She struggles to focus at school and is yelled at at home whenever she gets less than perfect marks, then bustled off to cram school in the evenings to maximise her chances of getting the grades that could secure her a place at South Korea's most prestigious university - something seen less as an aspiration than as a mandatory requirement.

Like a lot of teenagers under pressure, Eun-hee behaves in a way pretty much opposite to what might win her adult sympathy: sulking, bitching about her teachers, engaging in petty crime and doing all she can to avoid work. She only feels alright when she's hanging out with her friends, spending evenings at karaoke and dance clubs or getting swept away by romantic relationships. These are as messy as usual at that age, and her bisexuality means she also has to deal with layers of prejudice and erasure. She has learned to take abuse quietly; if she doesn't struggle, she won't be hit as hard. But she's about to meet somebody who will encourage her to think of herself as somebody worth fighting for.

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A meandering story built around the simple philosophy that life is full of ups and downs (and a whole lot of stuff that makes no sense to anyone), House Of Hummingbird centres on a quiet yet never passive performance from Park, who draws us into Eun-hee's world as we watch her absorbing and processing the events going on around her. The supporting cast are equally good and director Kim Bora draws a powerful contrast between what Park communicates with just her face and what her character's parents communicate by shouting and throwing things across the room. Meanwhile, strangers catch glimpses of her disordered world, regarding it with faint horror but not knowing what to do, making small gestures of support as so many adults do whilst children fall through the net.

This isn't a grim tale throughout, however. Eun-hee has learned to survive by soaking up love and joy wherever she can find it. Her vulnerability is combined with an openness to life that brings her unexpected sources of pleasure, from the sweet smell of a rose to the peace she finds in a hospital corridor. We also see her gradually learning to assert control and put other people in their place. There's a power in her that she's only just beginning to discover, an inner confidence, and even through the tragedies that remain, it's a delight to see it grow.

Kim has an astute understanding of the shifted priorities that make life look so different as a teenager. The film builds on incidents that might seem trivial to most adults, and sometimes seems to be ignoring urgent issues, but it has its own rhythm and is never less than convincing. Eun-hee is always at the centre of events, trying to mesh them together to build up a coherent picture of the wider world. The result is an unusually sensitive and intelligent film for young audiences which has a lot to say to older viewers as well.

Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2020
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She roams the neighbourhood with her best friend, attempts to fall in love, is sent to the hospital with an unclear diagnosis. Untethered from the wider world, 14-year-old Eun-hee floats through Seoul.
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Director: Bora Kim

Writer: Bora Kim

Starring: Jeong In-gi, Kim Sae-byeok, ParkJi-hu, Lee Seung-Yeon

Year: 2018

Runtime: 135 minutes

Country: South Korea

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