How ‘House of Hummingbird’ Beautifully Captures Loneliness in a Coming-of-Age Story
“Everyone is fighting their own battles inside of themselves. And it’s like no one else ever understands your problems. But you trudge along each day. To understand yourself better. Slowly.”
House of Hummingbird is a South Korean film released in 2018, written and directed by Kim Bora. Inspired by her own life and by the incidents of the Seongsu bridge collapse in 1994, Kim crafts a heartfelt film that hits close to home; a film most of us can relate to even if we are not the protagonist’s age.
The tale details 14-year-old Eun-Hee’s (Park Ji-Hoo) struggles against the world and her battle for self-discovery. Eun-Hee comes from a not-so-well-off, dysfunctional family where her parents (Lee Seung-Yeon and Jung In-Gi) are constantly fighting and neglecting their children. Her brother, Dae-Hoon (Son Sang-Yeon) is physically abusive, often beating her and her sister, Su-Hee (Park Soo-Yeon), a fellow troublemaker.
Eun-Hee sluggishly goes by her days without much motivation. She enjoys drawing comics rather than excelling at her academics like most kids. However, this unconventional pathway leads both her teachers and society at large to deem her as a delinquent, putting further strain on herself and her relationship with the family.
While battling against the pressures put on her life, Eun-Hee appears as if she is trapped in her own world, like a caged hummingbird. Though there is much going on in her thoughts, the outside world is calm, monotonous and unchanged. Even at the start of the film when her family attends a funeral — someone has passed away but they are all unfazed by the event.
There are so many characters in Eun-Hee’s life whose relationship with her isn’t developed all that well. People leave, reconcile, and life still feels the same. Eun-Hee’s world is full of people who pass her by— we don’t know their stories, why they have changed or why they are the way that they are. How effectively the film’s narrative is able to allow this theme to shine through is what makes this coming-of-age film a masterpiece unlike any other.
At the start of the film, Eun-Hee has a boyfriend named Ji-Wan (Jung Yoon-Seo), who often ghosts her and only reappears seemingly at random. The story never explains why this is so. Other than a short snippet showing how Ji-Wan’s mother drags him away from Eun-Hee, the boyfriend’s story is largely left unknown.
This is the case for many in the film who enter Eun-Hee’s life. Their stories are only alluded to through Eun-Hee’s limited perspective; we know just as much as she does.
The myopia goes the other way around too. The film’s characters are just as shrouded in the unknown about Eun-Hee, leaving her to seem so alone in her battles. It’s not helped that the teenager is quiet and reserved. She does not actively reach out to others, even if she constantly tries to find a sense of comfort and security in the people she meets.
She searches for love and escape but is always left with hurt, as no one seems to get her or, at least, offer what she needs. That is until she meets a character who leaves a huge mark on her life: her cram school Chinese teacher, Young-Ji (Kim Sae-Byuk).
“Among all the people you know, how many really understand what’s going on inside of you?” she says.
Young-Ji listens to Eun-Hee’s issues, staying by her side as a much-needed pillar of support. Eun-Hee finds solace in their time together, eventually giving her the courage to stand up to her family.
This newfound strength occurs through the mounting pressures of her surroundings and new encounters. These events allow Eun-Hee better understand who she is and what she loves, leaving her to mould her identity.
She meets a girl named Yoo-Ri (Seol Hye-In), who loves comics just as much as her and helps Eun-Hee better understand her own sexuality. She soon understands that despite the expectations on her to be a smart, typical student who studies hard and goes to Seoul National University, she can be herself and live her life her own way.
The film most certainly takes its audience through the experience a 14-year-old girl faces when she comes of age. And it does this, not just in its remarkable storyline but especially in its creatively slow-paced cinematography and editing. The film is unhurried to almost a discomforting extent.
It replicates the protagonist’s mundane life and how each day stretches endlessly with nothing but numbness over every occurrence. Various incidents take place but none is ever overly-packed with emotions. Before any emotions boil over, the scene ends. Peculiarly enough, this rhythm brought out the magic of the film.
The static shots, slow edits, and gentle music, brought together by exceptional leading performance, beautifully conveys how the character feels — as if the world is caving in on her.
At one point in the film, we see Eun-Hee fearing that her sister might have been caught in the bridge incident. She dials the phone in a panic. The camera shifts to show her through the window of the school. We see Eun-Hee in distress, but we only hear the rumblings of the other children at school.
The beautiful unique hummingbird is caged but it starts to find its own home, its own place to belong. And with these elements, the film beautifully ties together to make this heartwrenching, sentimental coming-of-age film that surely will touch anyone’s soul.
Stream the award-winning film here: