Review by Sean Boelman
After making a splash on the festival circuit last year, Kim Bora’s quiet melodrama House of Hummingbird is finally making its way to American audiences as a new virtual cinema offering. And while there are certainly moments of brilliance here, they aren’t quite able to translate into a sense of overall greatness.
Set in Seoul in 1994, the film tells the story of a teenage girl who wanders the city searching for love, all the while dealing with troubles with her dysfunctional family. Kim brings an undeniably personal touch to the movie, loosely inspired by her own experiences, and this authenticity elevates the film above the straightforward drama of the conflict.
There are simply too many moving pieces in this story for them to be explored to their full depth, even at two hours and eighteen minutes long. Ultimately, the protagonist’s quest for acceptance is the least satisfying of what the movie has to offer. The portions of the film which explore the things that pushed her to that point (such as her relationship with her abusive brother) are far more compelling.
Other sections of the movie feel entirely conventional. A subplot involving the protagonist finding a mentor in an unorthodox new teacher, one of the few adults she can trust, has the potential to have a great emotional effect but rarely goes beyond typical “good teacher helping troubled student” territory.
Furthermore, the friendship between the protagonist and her inseparable best friend feels disappointingly underdeveloped. Kim seems to be trying to explore the tendency of youth to form their own de facto family when their biological family isn’t nurturing enough, but these ideas are largely left on the table.
That said, there is enough of a character foundation for the cast to take the emotional hints they are given and run with them, making the film truly heartbreaking in moments. Lead actress Park Ji-hu is absolutely phenomenal in her role, giving one of the most affecting turns in any young adult-oriented movie in recent memory. Kim Sae-byuk also gives a memorable performance in the supporting cast.
Kim obviously has a very fine control of her craft, presenting the film with a restrained beauty. The pacing of the movie is slow, and may even bore some viewers, but the long takes and soft cinematography will draw other viewers into the film’s emotion. The score by Matija Strnisa is also excellent.
House of Hummingbird is entirely fine, with very little about it that isn’t well-done to some extent. Still, despite a warm and honest tone, Kim’s film is just an exemplary entry into an overstuffed genre.
House of Hummingbird screens online in partnership with indie theaters beginning June 26. A list of participating locations can be found here.