“The world is fascinating and beautiful” the teenage protagonist of Kim Bora’s House of Hummingbird (벌새, Beolsae) is told in an especially poignant letter recited in the film’s closing moments. It’s a lesson that she’s longing to learn, but finds few willing to teach her in a society whipping itself up into a frenzy of aspiration perhaps at the cost of true human connection. A chronicle of one surprisingly traumatic summer in the newly democratised Korea of 1994, Kim’s film charts its heroine’s gradual progress towards a kind of self acceptance with a melancholy ease as she begins to find her own way despite the toxicity of the world all around her.
14-year-old Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) is one of three siblings living in a cramped apartment with her harried, emotionally distant parents who run a small rice cake shop. A mediocre, disinterested student she falls asleep at school where the other kids cruelly exclaim that dozy girls like her never make it to college and are destined only to become housemaids to the “successful” adults they assume they’ll be. Meanwhile, Eun-hee’s hardline dad (Jung In-gi) makes her go to Chinese cram school where she “studies” along with her best friend, Ji-suk (Park Seo-yun), spending most of their lesson time making fun of the teacher in hastily written notes.
Previously purposeless, her world begins to widen when the Chinese teacher abruptly quits and is replaced by the infinitely cool, enigmatic university student Young-ji (Kim Sae-byuk) whom she first glimpsed smoking a melancholy cigarette by an open window on the stairs. Strangely captivated by this “odd” young woman, Eun-hee suddenly has the urge to study, especially as Young-ji turns out to be unique among the adults that she knows in that she seems to genuinely care about her and is interested in hearing all about her troubles, which, as we will find out are many.
In the mid-90s, Korea was a newly democratised and rapidly modernising society keen to claim its place on the economic world stage. Where Eun-hee’s parents are defeated, disappointed figures, they want better for their children in the new society but struggle as to how to get it for them. Eun-hee’s mother (Lee Seung-yeon), as we find out from her dejected brother, was bright but had to leave school to pay for his tuition (a promise he seems to think he has not fulfilled). Consequently, the parents are convinced “education” is the way out but fail to realise that their obsession with academic grades is slowly destroying their family home. While Eun-hee is sullen and withdrawn, pushed out by her rowdy family, her older brother’s exam stress often turns violent and her sister skips school to go clubbing in an attempt to escape adolescent anxiety.
Even when Eun-hee discovers a lump on the side of her neck, her mother sends her off to the doctor’s alone though he can’t actually treat her without parental consent which Eun-hee fears they won’t get round to giving. Though they visit her once, they don’t bother to pick her up from an extended stay in hospital and are not home when she returns. Not even an accusation of shoplifting rouses them from their busyness. Eun-hee’s father rudely tells the shopkeeper to stop bothering him and call the police, causing the shopkeeper to feel so sorry for her that he lets her go.
Meanwhile, Eun-hee looks for intimacy in other places. She tries innocent teenage romance with a feckless but good-looking boy, Ji-wan (Jeong Yun-seo), whom truth be told she perhaps likes more as an abstract idea than in himself. The unexpected gift of a bright red rose from a bashful girl (Seol Hye-in) sends her thoughts in another direction but leaves her more confused than ever when that too betrays. Through it all she idolises the mysterious figure of Young-ji with whom she seems to share some kind of affinity and the sense of connection so painfully absent in her frenetic family home.
Eun-hee’s difficult path towards an acceptance of adulthood mirrors that of her nation, finding itself in one particularly traumatic summer marked by a dangerous sense of anxiety in the end of eras as the North’s Kim Il-sung passes away, provoking fears of a disturbance in carefully won political equilibrium. Meanwhile, a literal bridge collapse threatens to destroy Eun-hee’s new path towards maturity once and for all, taking her only source of solace with it. Yet what she learns is that though bad things happen, good things happen too and there are always new people to share them with. She may feel herself to be alone, lost in a confusing landscape and uniquely indifferent to her nation’s relentless pursuit of consumerist success, but she does finally perhaps have herself and new hope for the future found in the security of her own hands.
Festival trailer (English subtitles)