“People should eat with their families” a little girl points out dutifully declining an invitation to dinner, only to return home and dine alone. Hana (Kim Na-yeon), the heroine of Yoon Ga-eun’s The House of Us (우리집, Ulijib), is still young enough to think she can bend the world to her will but is about to discover that some things can’t, or perhaps shouldn’t, be changed only accepted. Meditating on the meaning of family in a changing society, Yoon’s World of Us followup finds its earnest heroine trying to escape familial disappointment through forging a home of her own but eventually realising home is not a house.
11-year-old Hana has just won the best classmate prize, but no one at home seems to be very excited for her, nor (perhaps strangely) does she seem to have many friends. In fact, despite her caring nature, she’s feeling intensely insecure because her family life is in disarray. Mum and dad are both busy and rarely home, but when they are they’re having blazing rows about how dissatisfying they each are as spouses while even going so far as to have retroactive arguments about the decision to have children while their kids are still in earshot. Hana can see her mum’s busy and she wants to help so she offers to do some of the cooking as part of her summer holiday “recipe book” project, but is flatly refused. Fearing that her parents are on the brink of divorce and longing to return to happier days, she pesters them about going on a trip, believing that would be enough to repair her fracturing family.
Wistfully staring at happy families wherever she goes, Hana ends up running into two little girls, nine-year-old Yoo-mi (Kim Shi-a) and her sister seven-year-old Yoo-jin (Joo Ye-rim), who are living more or less on their own while their parents are working away (an uncle checks in on them every now and then). Lonely as she is, Hana starts hanging out with the equally lonely sisters but takes on an oddly maternal rather than sisterly role, delighting in cooking for them the way her mother rarely does for her and would not allow her to do for their family. Generating an easy bond, the girls decide to build “the house of us” out of discarded cardboard boxes, declaring they’ll build it as high as they can.
Yet Hana, still a child herself, struggles with what it means to assume a parental role. She does to Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin the exact things that she most resented about her own parents – withholding information and making decisions which affect everyone without consulting anyone. Having moved around a lot, Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin are most anxious that their landlady says they’ll be moving but their parents haven’t told them anything. Hana vows to help them save their house while protecting her own home, but in reality she can do neither. The girls resort to a series of childish tricks to prevent prospective tenants from choosing to rent Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin’s apartment in the belief that that they could stay if no one wanted to move in, approaching the problem with innocent logic that makes perfect sense to a child but is little more than silliness to an adult.
Meanwhile, Hana struggles with twin discoveries of parental betrayal in finding her mother’s application for a transfer to Germany, and accidentally answering a call from a woman on her father’s phone that perhaps embarrasses her as she realises despite her young age that he has done something potentially destructive to their family. The less control she has in her family home, the more time she spends with Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin making a new one and trying to do it better. The sisters begin to look up to her as a little more than a big sister figure, allowing her to lead and expecting that she will know what to do even when she fails them.
Through her own failures, Hana begins to realise that her parents aren’t perfect and adults don’t always know what to do either. The girls accept that they belong to different families and can’t stay together, but discover that the “house” wasn’t what was important and that they’ll always be connected even if they’re far apart. No longer so insecure, Hana steps into herself and understands that her parents’ marriage is something they’ll sort out for themselves and if the family is scattered it’ll still be her family. A warm and empathetic, if melancholy, exploration of coming to terms with life’s disappointments, The House of Us finds serenity in the act of letting go as its heroine finds the strength to look forward rather than back towards a happy independence supported but not constrained by imperfect family.
International trailer (English subtitles)