Monday, June 22, 2020

House of Hummingbird: Growing Up in Seoul, circa 1994

If growing up were easy, coming-of-age stories wouldn’t be an established dramatic sub-genre. It is particularly difficult for 14-year-old Eun-hee. While wresting with questions of love and sexuality, she must also deal with family tragedies, abuse, and school pressure in director-screenwriter Bora KIM’s House of Hummingbird, which releases virtually this Friday in New York.

1994 will be an eventful year for South Korea. Their national football team has great success in the World Cup, Kim Jong-il dies and goes to Hell, and the Seongsu bridge collapses. However, only the latter really has much impact on Eun-hee. Her parents favor her untalented high school senior brother, who often lashes out at her physically. Her rebellious older sister bears the brunt of her parents’ anger, leaving Eun-hee and the growing polyp under her ear largely ignored. She thinks she might have a steady boyfriend, until he flakes. Then, the aptly name Yuri seems determined to take his place, but Eun-hee is not sure what to make of her.

The one person who really resonates with Eun-hee is her cool Chinese cram school teacher, Young-ji. As an older university student, Young-ji has obviously experienced her share of disappointment. Clearly, this is why she is so understanding whenever Eun-hee confides in her. Yet, the teacher still closely guards her private life.

Although Kim starts the film slowly, she meticulously builds out Eun-hee’s world, establishing each source of angst. As the teenager grows and evolves, Kim weaves together every strand quite dexterously. The nearly two-hour and twenty-minute is a bit on the longish side, but the film truly picks up speed and intensity as it progresses.

Of course, none of this would work if Hummingbird were not anchored by two excellent performances. Park Ji-hoo portrays Eun-hee in a remarkably sensitive and expressive star-making turn. Yet, the key might be Kim Sae-byuk’s subtle but complex humanity as Young-ji. She is not a stereotypical Miss Jane Brodie-To-Sir-with-Love teacher, but she makes Young-ji’s interest in her student and her student’s idolization of her seem completely credible and almost inevitably natural.

Life is painfully messy in Humingbird, but that is why it rings true. It could have been worse. In 1994, a student like Eun-hee only has a pager (remember those?). One can only imagine how much more difficult the things she goes through could have been with smart phones and social media added to the mix. Still, Eun-hee has it harder than many, yet Kim still finds some grace notes in her coming of age story. Recommended for patrons of Korean cinema and younger teens who can relate to her story, House of Hummingbird releases virtually this Friday (6/26), from Well Go USA, via Kino Marquee.