Why is House of Hummingbird called House of Hummingbird? I’ve got no idea, and watching this South Korean coming-of-ager hasn’t enlightened me. Can anyone help? Answers below if you can. Maybe I missed something.
Odd in a way, because the film itself is as clear as day and is told in a bright, clear manner, by actors with open, honest faces, particularly Park Ji-Hu, who plays schoolgirl Eun-hee.
This is her story. She’s an average kind of schoolgirl with an interest in comics and drawing. Life at home is a bit tense. Her brother bullies her a bit, her older sister is skipping out at night to see her boyfriend, mum and dad have rows occasionally – he shouts, she throws something at him. All… fairly normal really. The family also works together, making foodstuffs (rice cakes etc) which they sell in their shop in the mall. At night they count the takings back at their crammed apartment. The banknotes make Eun-hee’s fingers dirty.
School is strict. Eun-hee has been pegged by her zealous teacher as one of the troublemakers. She has a boyfriend, of sorts, who maybe wants to kiss her, maybe not. She has a best friend, though they fall out over one thing, then get back together. Other potential new friends appear on the horizon.
Is life crap or great? Bit of both, really. Eun-hee discovers a lump below her ear. It might be serious, it might not. On the upside there are daytime discos to go to, lipstick to be worn, boys seem to like her, and there’s a new Chinese teacher (Kim Sae-byuk) who also loves comics and seems a bit of a rebel and kindred spirit.
It sounds – the odd detail apart – like my adolescence, and possibly yours. One of House of Hummingbird’s strengths is the way it manages to be both particular and universal. Another is that it seems to take place in teenager time, when entire days can be wasted just jumping up and down on a trampoline, and in teenager space, a bright, fairly uncluttered place where backgrounds are often composed of single blocks of defocused colour and the important thing is Eun-hee herself, or whatever she’s focused on at the time. Nothing has real consequence. “Wanna go shoplifting?” says Eun-hee’s friend at one point, and so off they go, and get caught, and are soon out of that scrape too, back in a world focused entirely on them.
This is Kim Bora’s feature debut and it’s apparently strongly autobiographical. It has the ring of truth about it. Kim has resisted the urge to amplify for the sake of drama. The various fractures, of friendships, with siblings, between the parents, at school, come and go.
Is something going to happen? Matija Strniša’s soundtrack trembles as if it is, in anticipation that feels like everything is building towards something. Is Eun-hee in love with her gal pal? Or her teacher? Is this one of those “the summer I realised I was gay”? films?
Everything hangs in the air.
And then the Seongsu Bridge collapses, as it did in real life in 1994, killing around 30 people, an event repurposed by Kim to introduce a moment of brutal reality, something solid to give all this inconsequentiality some gravitational weight.
In interviews Kim has suggested that the film is actually about South Korea’s over-rapid modernisation, which has left some people behind and caused metaphorical cracks to appear, akin to the real ones which led the Seongsu Bridge to fail.
This is a very carefully crafted film, and a very well acted one, but the bridge metaphor mystifies me. I feel like I’m missing something. It’s not just the title then.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021