Exploring modern themes and history through the eyes of a young girl, Kim Bora's sensational debut House of Hummingbird is the Korean indie drama par excellence. A subtle exploration of local family and societal pressures crafted in a way that many other directors have aspired to but none have quite achieved until now, this sprawling period tale captivates early on and only builds from there, even as it sails past the two hour mark.
In 1994, Eun-hee, 14 years of age, is the runt of three children, sibling to a delinquent middle sister and an overachieving but violent elder brother. Her parents run a small rice cake store and provide little parenting to their children as they constantly quarrel in front of them. Eun-hee dates a local boy and gets up to mischief with her best friend Ji-sook until she becomes spellbound by her new Chinese character teacher Young-ji. As Eun-hee deals with the people and pressures around her, summer wears on with several major news events happening in the background, including the world cup, the death of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and the collapse of the Seongsu bridge.
In some ways, House of Hummingbird is reminiscent of Yoon Ga-eun's The World of Us, another debut feature drama led by a child character from a promising short filmmaker, but Kim's work is far more ambitious in its scope and bold in its execution. It's also an extremely tactile film that very pays special attention to what people do with their hands. Among other examples, Eun-hee and Ji-sook scribble notes to each other in class, Young-ji writes elegantly on her board and Eun-hee's parents handle and cut strands of compressed rice in their store. These instances, along with the subtle period details, give the whole film a wonderful lived-in feel.
Whereas a lesser film may have presented Eun-hee's home life in a harsher light, Kim doesn't demonize her parents or siblings, who are each capable of acting as human beings. Through this approach, witnessing the difficulty of her circumstances becomes all the more affecting. Another change it makes is to focus on a wide array of problems she faces, rather than present extreme examples of one or two. Over the course of the whole narrative this adds up to an unusually full portrait of its young protagonist.
Of course, Kim's excellent direction would be all for naught were it not for her terrific cast. Playing Eun-hee is the young Park Ji-hoo, who has had some small parts in commercial films, including this summer's The Witness. Given the depth of the role she takes on and the layers of Eun-hee she must show us, her performances is nothing short of a marvel. Kim surrounds her with excellent character actors, including Jung In-gi (After My Death) and Lee Seung-yeon (Alive) as her parents, and indie darling Kim Sae-byeok (The Day After) as the mysterious and cool Young-ji.
Though this is her feature film debut, Kim Bora gained a lot of notice for her short films, particularly The Recorder Exam, another youth-centric family drama. She first presented House of Hummingbird as a project at the Seoul International Women's Film Festival and the film went on to receive support from the Korean Film Council and the Sundance Institute among others. It's easy too see why, as not only is her first feature a wonderful work in its own right, but it clearly announces Kim as a major new force on the scene who should quickly be granted a place on the world cinema stage.
Beyond its ideas, bold structure and strong casting, the film is also notable for its beautiful construction. Kang Gook-hyun, the cinematographer of The Shameless, brings a rich palette of earthy tones to the film, which are amplified by the warm and wooden hues of Kim Geun-a's production design.
Along with works such as The Journals of Musan and Han Gong-ju, House of Hummingbird is one of the most electric debuts to come out of the Busan International Film Festival in recent years. Tackling a broad range of ideas with deft skill, one imagines that the Cannes and Berlins of the world will be knocking at Kim's door before long.