Winner of the Grand Prix of the Generation 14plus International Jury and of the KNN and NETPAC award at Busan, Kim Bo-ra-I's feature debut is an excellent indie film, and an indication of the nominal path Korean (melo)dramas should follow.
The story unfolds in 1994, during the FIFA World Cup in Korea and revolves around Eun-hee, an 8th grader, who seems to be lost, both metaphorically and literally, as we see her in the first scene of the film banging at the wrong door of the highly homogenous building she lives in. Her issues extend to all aspects of her life. In her house, she has to face a violent father who is obsessed with his kids' education and frequently fights with their mother, at least when she does not act in a completely detached fashion. Also, an equally violent brother who hits her every chance he gets, and a delinquent sister who always asks Eun-hee to help her to avoid punishment from their father. Her days in school feel very boring, and her romance with a boy her age does not help very much. Things pick up when she is introduced to a new instructor of Chinese, Kim Young-ji, who soon becomes a sort of a mentor, and she starts experimenting with her sexuality with a slightly younger girl, while Kim Il-sung's death and the collapse of Seongsu Bridge sent ripples across all the country, including Eun-hee's life. In the meantime, she also has to face a biopsy, which she experiences almost alone, and a series of betrayals by her supposed friend.
Kim Bo-ra-I creates a rather thorough portrait of a teenage girl, whose life seems to be dictated by the actions of those around her and by events she has no control upon. This approach leads to the melodrama, since having one individual experience all that Eun-hee does is far-fetched, but in essence, Kim uses her as an archetype to portray everything that torments teenagers, in a fashion that actually makes the timeline irrelevant, since these issues actually transcend time. Love, sexual orientation, dysfunctional families, friendship, mentorship, (domestic) violence, parenting, the concept of education as the sole path to success, life and death, are all explored through Eun-hee, in a way that is equally realistic, thorough and entertaining, and highlight the fact that Kim Bo-ra-I knows her subject and how to present it really well, particularly because she manages to avoid demonizing the people that cause the girl to suffer.
In this aspect, Kim benefits the most by Park Ji-hoo's exceptional performance in the protagonist role, who presents a rather multilayered character with nuance, but also with a sense of measure that is usually attributed to actors much older than her. This almost constant sense of measure makes the two scenes where she truly lashes out (the screaming and the dancing one) quite memorable, as it intensifies their impact. Kim Sae-byuk as her tutor provides the second most enjoyable performance, as she is quite good as the benevolent mentor and one of the few sources of hope for her student.
Kang Gook-hyun's cinematography also focuses on realism, while his camera follows Park Ji-hoo as much as possible, also adding to the whole "portrait" aesthetics that permeate the film. Cho Zoe Sua's editing implements a relatively slow pace that suits the theme of the film, although at 138 minutes, I felt that some more cuts would benefit the film.
Despite some faults here and there, "House of Hummingbird" is a great sample of the Korean indie film, and a rather hopeful debut from a director who is bound to keep us busy in the next years.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[Hancinema Film Review] "House of Hummingbird""
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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