Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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BORA KIM: HOUSE OF HUMMINGBIRD 벌새 (2018)

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JI-HU PARK IN HOUSE OF HUMMINGBIRD

A girl coming of age in 1990's South Korea

Bora Kim's lovely feature is a semi-autobiographical exploration of the life of a 14-year-old girl with an older sister Su-hee (Park Su-yeon), an abusive brother, Dae-hoon (Sang-yeon Sohn) and squabbling parents (Lee Seung-Yeon and Jeong In-gi ) who are away most of the time running a rice cake shop. It's early 1994, the year the great Seoul Seongsu Bridge collapsed. They live in genteel poverty. Eun-hee (JPark Ji-hu) is beaten by her brother, scorned by her 8th grade teacher, and voted most likely not to succeed by fellow students. This movie plays quietly with your emotions, and does that well, if for a bit too long. Some are underwhelmed, but prizes were won. The voice may continue to prove distinctive.

Things don't begin promisingly. The negative stuff wholly predominates at first - a drunken uncle, parents having screaming, lamp-smashing fights, the cruel male sibling, low status at school. The world seems quietly cruel. But Eun-hee is quietly resilient. And then positive things begin to happen, even if they don't always last. There's a boyfriend, the inexperienced Ji-wan (Yoon-seo Jeong). Scenes with him are surprisingly intimate, though brief. There's a mysterious girlfriend, Yu-ri (Hye-in Seol), with whom Eun-hee explores the same mouth-to-mouth kissing, and it's not just practicing for boys. When we meet the "quirky" young Chinese cram course tutor Yong-ji (Kim Sae-byeok), a student at Seoul University, who Eun-hee opens up to and falls for, we begin to settle in. Director Kim sinks her claws in all the way with a gradually emerging health problem. Everything is explored slowly, patiently, and the the style holds the attention. Even if it all winds up going on arguably a bit long, the emotion subtly grows and grows.

The time in the hospital is a major step forward for Eun-hee: it's a time by herself, and a time when she gets attention and meets new people. But the important relationship is with the cram school totor, Young-ji ( Sae-byeok Kim). Despite Eur-hee's protest Young-ji is a little strange, but she listens to Eun-hee and serves her very hot oolong tea, and her oddness sets her apart from the rubber stamp classmates.

Eun-hee is defined as artistic. She's not good at class work or reading and most likes to spend time drawing comics, when not with her best friend Ji-suk (Park Seo-yoon). And any recreation makes you a "delinquent" in the eyes of the high-discipline teacher who makes the class chant "Instead of karaoke, I will go to Seoul National University." Eun-hee does do some karaoke singing, and goes to an underground dance club and gets caught once shoplifting for a thrill, but she's not a playgirl.

The cinematography is muted, and so is the period flavor. TV's broadcast historical events, and there's one or two period tunes. Pagers are used to communicate sometimes. Director Park has a quiet style that's more than once been compared to Koreeda. There isn't a strong dramatic or structural sense, but there's a subtle, intimate feel. I thought a bit of Edward Yang, and the reserved framing sometimes evokes Hou Hsiao-hsien. This movie doesn't make you scream and shout, it puts you off at first. But it slowly earns, and deserves, respect. The bridge disaster, which is actually glimpsed, is effectively moved to give one a sense of the tragic power of time. The fine cinematography of Kang Gookhyun and the delicacy and subtlety of the scenes began to move me so much I was on the verge of tears.

House of Hummingbird 벌새 (Beol-sae), 138 mins., debuted at Busan Oct. 2018, playing also at Berlin (Feb. 2019) and Tribeca (Apr. 2019); two dozen festivals overall, with many nominations and awards including Grand Prix of the Generation 14plus International Jury at Berlin. US internet release Jun. 26, 2020, Kino Marquee. Metascore 78%.

[Transliterations and word order of the actors' names may vary.]

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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