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House of Hummingbird

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/25/20 16:12:04

"Deserves attention."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The very last detail I noticed during the screening of "House of Hummingbird" - indeed, the very last detail there is to notice - is that the copyright is assigned directly to writer/director/producer Kim Bora, rather to a production company or some group of investors, and I wonder if it meant she started out with more resources at her disposal than the film's young heroine or if it's just that much more important to claim the story as hers. It doesn't matter, really - the film is good either way - but it's the sort of small detail that can stick with you at the end of a movie about a girl who is often overlooked.

That girl is Eunhee (Park Ji-Hu), fourteen years old and unable to get into her family's apartment because her mother is napping or out or otherwise just not answering the door, to the point where Eunhee eventually wonders if she's in the right place, as these low-income units do tend to run together. There are five in there, including older sister Suhee (Park Soo-Yeon), who is always in trouble, and brother Daehoon, a year older but getting all of their parents' attention and support as he studies for his high-school entry exams. Eunhee isn't a great student - she'd rather hang around with boyfriend Jiwan and bestie Jisuk - but new teacher Kim Young-Ji (Kim Sae-Byuk) sees something in her notebook doodles. Even with that new interest being shown in her (and that of a new classmate), Eunhee doesn't quite think of herself enough to raise much of an alarm when a persistent sore throat doesn't go away.

It's a testimony to just how good young actress Park Ji-hu is - and how carefully filmmaker Kim Bora has inserted potentially upbeat moments - that House of Hummingbird doesn't just become a parade of misery, confirmation that adolescence is nothing but cruel torment. Eunhee is a middle-school heroine that the audience can get behind even as her troubles get piled high, and Park makes it clear that she needs someone behind her, always showing the hesitation and frustration of someone who knows she is not thought of as much and is only just figuring out that she is undervalued. Park puts the same sort of intelligent passion into the scenes where she's worried and empathetic as when she's frustrated and envious as Eunhee eventually figures out how to demand attention because she deserves it and not just because she feels slighted.

She's never alone in her troubles, which helps quite a bit; it's clear from the start that her mother and best friend know where she's coming from, even if they often seem powerless to help each other break away for more than a few minutes at a time. It's part of being a girl in that time and place, and while the very first scene captures how close a kid can be to boiling over in this situation, the movie as a whole trends toward Eunhee getting more able to handle herself, even if it's sometimes a sort of youthful not knowing any better. The cast around her does good work in carving out individual personalities while also representing all of the various things that a girl like Eunhee is up against, despite making sure that they are never actually bigger than her.

Part of that is that director Kim never sets things up so that Eunhee has one clear problem that she has to solve. The bulk of the film is relatively small moments, even when the room is crowded enough for Eunhee to fade to the back of a classroom or family gathering, and Kim shows an ability to hold those moments for a while, focusing on how Eunhee is reacting to them, and switch them up so that neither she nor the audience is completely overwhelmed. There are at least two major challenges as the film moves into its later stages, but neither Eunhee's diagnosis or the calamitous real-life event that Kim works into the script are things that an eighth-grade girl can exactly conquer through her own efforts, but getting through which can solidify and strengthen her.

Adolescence is tough but survivable, and "House of Hummingbird" nails that vibe well.

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