Kim Bora’s Film World (So Far): The Trials and Tribulations of Girlhood9 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
Kim Bora is a South Korean director and screenwriter. Born in 1981 in Seoul, South Korea, Kim graduated from Dongguk University with a degree in film and went on to earn her master’s degree in film directing from Columbia University. Though still limited, her filmography is elegant, deeply personal, and contains multitudes of moods and emotions emblematic of a confident filmmaker with a keen eye. She has made it no secret that her work is highly autobiographical, with many borrowed experiences from her own childhood and adolescence.
House of Hummingbird (벌새) (2018) was an indie sensation that received many accolades worldwide, cementing her as a breakout talent in the industry. A film festival darling, it amassed 59 awards in total, including the Grand Prix of the Generation 14plus International Jury for the Best Film at the 69th Berlinale, and Best International Narrative Feature at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
Seven years earlier, she had made the short The Recorder Exam (리코더 시험) (2011), a film that also demonstrates her flair for storytelling. Both films revolve around the themes of family, coming of age and friendship. Her films are about finding yourself and, despite the many challenges her heroines face, are nevertheless quietly encouraging to audiences watching.
The Recorder Exam is a 29-minute short film about a young girl’s (Hwang Jeongone) search for a place in her family as she prepares for a recorder exam at school. In a short period of time, Kim paints a complete picture of young Eun-Hee’s family life, tackling many real-life issues along the way. She carefully illustrates how the darker complications of family life can be perplexing and distressing for a young child. Eun-Hee struggles to understand herself and her dysfunctional family — a neglectful father, absent mother and sister, and abusive older brother.
The film is essentially a prequel to Kim’s later film House of Hummingbird, which features the same familial structure and its resultant struggles, and an older Eun-Hee (Park Ji-Hu), now about 14, an adolescent still trying to find herself.
Both films are characterised by the protagonists’ familial dysfunction and parental neglect. The Recorder Exam introduces audiences to this dynamic — Eun-Hee is excited to learn that the student who plays the best at the exam will get to invite their parents to watch them play, and she spends the film determined to win this privilege. Young and bright-eyed, she wants nothing more than to impress her parents.
We see Eun-Hee’s bids for affection from her father (Jung In-Gi, who also plays the father in Kim’s latter film), who is too busy toiling at the family’s rice cake shop to spare her the time, as well as her mother’s seeming disconnection from anything that is happening to her childrens’ lives. As a child, she yearns for their validation: she asks her mother point-blank, “What’s pretty about me?” and visits her father at work just to tell him she’s gotten an ‘A’ for a test. To her dismay, both instances are met with lacklustre responses.
In House of Hummingbird, Kim introduces to us an Eun-Hee who has become more adjusted to this lack of attention and has more or less given up finding solace in her parents’ arms. She is invisible, drifting between home and school life, much like a hummingbird trying to find moments of sweetness wherever she can get it.
The familial dysfunction that Eun-Hee experiences play to the larger issue of deeply-rooted sexism in society. While it doesn’t feel like a commentary piece, these are definitely controversial elements that Kim knew she was putting on screen. What makes her interpretation of such societal problems so compelling is her keen eye for nuances in her characters’ reactions to them, which conveys an intimacy with the topic she is handling — unsurprising when we are aware that these are Kim’s own lived experiences.
Her works are more introspective than argumentative. In both films, the main characters’ brothers take out their frustrations on them with physical violence while their parents practically stand by and let it happen. In The Recorder Exam, their father does nothing to discipline his son. In Hummingbird, when Dae-Hoon (Sohn Sang-Yeon) hits his sister in front of their parents, he gets reprimanded and sent to his room, but we don’t see any concrete steps to prevent this behaviour in the future. Dae-Hoon has been brought up to believe that he is entitled to ill-treat Eun-Hee when he feels like it.
As director and screenwriter, Kim doesn’t play the judge by overtly criticising the violence or neglect in either film — Dae-Hoon isn’t the film’s villain per se — but the effect it has on Eun-Hee is crystal clear. Kim doesn’t patronise her heroines with performative feminism, and she isn’t out to condemn any character or, for that matter, necessarily trying to make a point. She matter-of-factly presents her own experience the way she remembers them, and she does it so well that the audience sees it for what they are — manifestations of the careless and sometimes unwitting misogyny of the society she grew up in.
Kim’s storytelling style is emotive and empathetic. As girls, her protagonists’ home environments are only just getting acquainting them with an adult world that will treat them as less important, second-best, much like how their father and brother dominate the household. Their mother, while not completely passive, is meek in her attempts to defend herself and her girls, and is for the most part unsuccessful. Kim’s narratives are subtle, tender reflections of girlhood told with candidness and vulnerability. Open and honest, her films transcend cultural boundaries, their core messages require no subtitles to understand.
House of Hummingbird is somewhat for girls what Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) is for boys. Though not famously filmed over an extended period of 12 years like Boyhood was, Kim manages to evoke the same emotionality about the confusion of adolescence and the strangeness of the adult world.
There is friendship betrayal when Eun-Hee’s best friend Ji-Suk (Park Seo-Yoon) throws her under the bus when they are caught shoplifting. She starts to experiment with romantic relationships, finding romantic interest in both Ji-Wan (Jung Soon-Yeo), her boyfriend of sorts, and Yu-Ri (Seol Hye-In), a girl she meets. The sentiments and experiences are universally relatable, sure to strike a chord with audiences across cultures and generations.
Hummingbird is also notably darker in tone than Recorder Exam — its 138-minute runtime allows it to delve into the complicated minefield that is the transition between childhood and adulthood. Though the household atmosphere is almost identical in both films, Eun-Hee’s world in the latter is noticeably more bleak — the warm, rose-tinted hue of childhood is gone and has been replaced by a dull, desaturated colour palette. The shift in colour on screen is akin to the familiar feeling of disillusionment we’ve all had at one point or other during our adolescence. Kim depicts coming-of-age not as a grand moment where the world shifts and suddenly you’re a grownup. It’s as subtle as the world just becoming a shade less rosy, and a tinge more real.
Despite the trials and tribulations, Kim nudges her young, impressionable heroines towards finding their happiness. As Eun-Hee flits from one experience to another looking for sweetness, what she’s really searching for is a fulfilling relationship — not necessarily a romantic one, but one that will provide her with the support and comfort she lacks at home. Recorder Exam’s Eunhee actively voices out her desire for attention, while Hummingbird’s older Eun-Hee is more pensive, timidly gravitating towards those in whom she sees potential for this consolation.
It is in the company of Young-Ji (Kim Sae-Byuk), a new teacher at her cram school, where she finds comfort and finally feels understood. Young-Ji functions very loosely as a stand-in for the director, who stated in an interview with Korea Now that she inserted her own advice and encouragement for the youth watching the film into the character’s dialogue.
Ultimately, Kim’s films are not a critique, nor are they meant to be cynical. There is hope — though Eun-Hee stumbles through obstacles, she comes closer and closer to finding her own identity and voice.
Kim Bora is a filmmaker with a distinctly unique voice that needs to be heard. “As a creator, I want to be a person who’s observant of our world.” Sensitive yet sharp, she is full of exciting potential, we can only hope to see more of her brilliantly inspiring films.
House of Hummingbird (2018) is currently available for rental streaming on The Projector Plus under Pink Screen at The Projector showcase.
The Recorder Exam (2011) is currently streaming on MUBI.