“When will my life shine?” asks 14-year-old Eunhee (Park Ji Hu). Set in 1994 Seoul, we see the world through Eunhee’s eyes in Kim Bora’s debut feature, House of Hummingbird. South Korea is in a period of economic upturn, asserting itself after a history of instability and lack of agency. The North is mourning the loss of its leader. This all means little to Eunhee and does not affect her directly, as she searches for something to look forward to.
The film takes us deep into Eunhee’s inner world. Her turmoil, experiences and journey run parallel to a South Korea going through a period of great transition just on the brink of the Asian Financial Crisis. Sensitive and deeply humanist, the film shows the coming-of-age story of Eunhee, and in a way, South Korea’s. It never veers into hackneyed melodrama and shows a great deal of emotional sensitivity.
That fine balancing act is best shown through the nuanced writing of House of Hummingbird‘s characters, but in particular the supporting female characters. These female characters provide us with an understanding of what it means to grow up female and be a woman in South Korea. At the same time, we also delve into the complex relationships each of these characters have with Eunhee, and how these relationships shape and impact her.
Eunhee and Omma
The most fraught female relationship Eunhee has is with her own mother. Eunhee’s family is part of the large emerging middle-class that rose from South Korea’s developing economy during the 1980s. They are a traditional nuclear family run on Confucian, patriarchal values. They operate a rice cake (tteok) business, and mother does most of the physical labour as well as taking care of the household.
Eunhee’s mother appears as though she is going through the motions of life on autopilot. This is all the more heart-breaking through the performance from actress Lee Seung Yeon, who balances the exhaustion and resignation with the quiet love she has for her children buried under a great deal of emotional repression. Lee makes Eunhee’s mother look as though she is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. She is a woman of few words, so the performance comes from within, and in her physicality. She always appears shrunken, hunched, curled up, trying to make herself smaller.
One of the most devastating scenes has Eunhee spotting her mother standing in the middle of the staircase leading up to their block of flats, staring blankly at the sky. She initially calls to her mother happily, but her mother doesn’t hear her and doesn’t turn back. Eunhee realises something is off, but she keeps shouting anyway. In a post-screening Q&A conducted in Singapore, Director Kim explained that Mom was using that outdoor space to process her emotions in a way she could not in the house. We never see Mom’s face in this scene, just her back, but even from the distance we can feel the tension she has bottled up in her back from her posture and gait.
Some viewers may argue that Eunhee’s mother cares very little about her. When Eunhee accuses her brother of hitting her, Mom shoots her down and tells them to stop fighting, as if both are in the wrong when there is an obvious power and physical imbalance. When Eunhee finds a lump under her ear, her mother is concerned, but sends Eunhee to go alone to the clinic by herself. This seems to be the ultimate point of contention in how neglected Eunhee is by her own mother, but that would be too easy and reductive.
When Mom feels the lump under Eunhee’s ear her eyes widen in concern. She also relates to Eunhee about her homeroom teacher’s visit to their store informing her that Eunhee was polled to be the “number one delinquent” in the class. Mom does not berate her, but instead reminds Eunhee to study hard instead as that is the only way she will be respected. She hopes Eunhee can attend college so she “can read the English on street signs and carry books in front of [her] chest around campus.” The camera focuses on Eunhee’s face here, and because she is at this point in the middle of giving Mom a massage, she cannot see her expression, but we can see her mother smiling fondly, even out of focus.
Eunhee’s father frequently shouts at Mom for not paying attention to the children. But how can she fully fulfil her role as a mother when so much of her is taken out by work? Not only does she shoulder most of the work of the rice cake shop alone, her marriage is also on the rocks with a possibly cheating husband and frequent fights that sometimes turn physical. Add to that, she has to cope with a brother suffering from depression and taking care of three teenage children. All this would take a toll on any human being, and it is hinted strongly that Mom may also be suffering from depression. It is also simply not part of the Korean culture to display emotions, and consequently affection, so openly. There is a strong sense of emotional repression in many of the characters that is reflective of a society striving towards economic rise as a way of social climbing and a superficial idea of respect.
The only way Eunhee’s mother knows how to express care is through food and her tteok. Next to kimchi, tteok can be considered as the national food of Korea. It takes discipline, hard work and time to turn rice flour into tteok. Everything in Eunhee’s mother has been given over to make tteok, in hopes that this quintessential but humble food can provide a better future for her family than the one they have now. When she pan-fries the tteok for Eunhee, she sits and watches quietly as Eunhee consumes the food; a smile of affection on her face. When Eunhee is faced with an operation, she assures the girl it will be okay while putting food in her bowl and encouraging her to eat, a quintessential Asian mother move. It is in little actions like these that say everything about Mom and her relationship with Eunhee. Eunhee’s mother may be far from the perfect mother, but she is reflective of so many Korean mothers out there struggling under a patriarchal society with no education and options outside marriage and motherhood. She is trying to do her best by her children and ultimately, she loves them.
Eunhee and Unnie
“You know… I have nothing I’m good at,” Eunhee’s unnie (older sister) Suhee says to her, slightly drunk and back facing towards her. Eunhee shares a room with Suhee, and in many ways, Suhee is an older version of Eunhee. This could be why Suhee and Eunhee’s relationship isn’t given as much emphasis as with the other female supporting characters.
Both sisters are constantly made to feel that they will never amount to anything. Eunhee also seems to be mirroring what her older sister does unconsciously. Both have secret boyfriends—part rebellion, part searching for affection, and part wanting something and someone to look forward to. Both sisters are people of few words, but it is clear through the lingering shots of Suhee’s back while Eunhee lies in bed trying to fall asleep that Suhee’s mere presence is some source of comfort to her. Suhee sticks up for Eunhee when their older brother cruelly ‘jokes’ that Eunhee will be uglier after her operation, quipping, “jokes are supposed to be funny.” It is a small gesture, but for Suhee who appears to be relatively passive, defending her sister clearly matters to her, as does her freedom. Skipping cram school and rebelling against the obsessive culture of good grades equals good may seem reckless, but they show that Suhee has her own convictions.
Suhee ends up aiding in Eunhee’s emotional catharsis and healing process after the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge affects Eunhee personally. The tragedy claimed the lives of several of Suhee’s schoolmates, and she sneaks out to the site of the collapse with her boyfriend and Eunhee in tow. Eunhee herself was initially distraught when the accident hit, because she had thought Suhee would be on a bus going across the bridge. While Suhee got lucky, both sisters now must cope with the trauma of survivor’s guilt, grief and loss. There is an unspoken connection between them. We never see Eunhee tell Suhee how the bridge collapse has affected her, but it doesn’t matter. For both of them, having each other allows them to gain some measure of closure from the traumatic incident.
Suhee and Eunhee’s relationship is built on just allowing each other to be, especially in the small space of their shared room. Just by having the other’s presence around them can be a source of strength. While Eunhee is struggling to find her place in the world, Suhee provides a source of comfort as they both share in the struggle of their transition from girlhood to adulthood.
Eunhee and Jisuk
There’s a subtle layer of class commentary in the film that is highlighted through Eunhee’s friendship with Jisuk. The girls are friends through their shared Chinese cram school. In Asian schools, it can be hard to tell initially who are the haves and have nots. School uniforms are mandatory, and for girls, short, neat practical haircuts are often preferred. Unlike films set in Western high schools, class differences between students are not immediately apparent, which only makes differences between friends like Eunhee and Jisuk all the more cutting when they manifest.
When their new cram school teacher Youngji first meets Eunhee and Jisuk she has them introduce themselves with what they like. Jisuk readily says she likes Calvin Klein because she gets them as gifts from her parents. Immediately, we can see Eunhee look wistfully at her. Her emotions in that moment—realising she and Jisuk come from very different worlds—puts into sharp relief how isolated Eunhee is from her peers. We learn from Director Kim that Eunhee lives in a relatively well-off neighbourhood1 House Of Hummingbird reflects South Korean director’s cram-school experience, John Lui, (2019), The Straits Times, retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/entertainment/house-of-hummingbird-reflects-south-korean-directors-cram-school-experience, originally published September 11, 2019, also in print. . Her family owning a rice cake shop and being middle-class therefore makes her an outcast. Her peers gossip: “stupid girls like her end up becoming our maids,” and vote her as the “number one delinquent” just because her life does not revolve around studying to enter a top university. But as Eunhee’s mother mentions, getting into a top university is one of the only ways for middle class people like them to ever gain respect.
If there is one thing Eunhee and Jisuk bond over, it is the knowledge that men treat women badly no matter what their economic status is. As little sisters, both Eunhee and Jisuk are used as punching bags for their brothers. The only difference is what they use. For Eunhee, it’s bare hands or a kendo stick, while Jisuk gets hit in the face with a golf club—another indicator, however horrific, of the wealth disparity between the two.
The film also uses Eunhee and Jisuk’s relationship to draw out the complicated friendships girls often have. Many films seek to address the media’s frequent pitting of women against each other by showcasing female friendships. But they can often come across as superficial and precious. In House of Hummingbird, many of the female relationships are shown in shades of grey—including Eunhee and Jisuk’s friendship. The turning point of their friendship comes when they are caught shoplifting, and Jisuk rats on Eunhee to the shopkeeper by giving him the phone number to Eunhee’s father. Hurt and betrayed, Eunhee confronts Jisuk who initially gives no explanation. Her betrayal is born out of a fear of being physically beaten by the shopkeeper, which mirrors her fear of her brother. It is telling how the cracks in their friendship are caused by their expectations of men to hurt them. The two eventually make up after Youngji indirectly helps them to thaw the ice with each other, but their friendship is no longer the same, for better or for worse. There is a maturity in their relationship and a new frankness in the way they now communicate.
Eunhee and teacher Youngji
The crux of Eunhee’s story is her search to find someone she can connect with. She searches for this in her family, her friends, her boyfriend and girlfriend, and, finally, through teacher Youngji. Teacher Youngji is the first person in Eunhee’s life that pauses to truly see her and try to understand and comfort her. She also raises questions that offer Eunhee an alternative way of thinking beyond what society has prescribed.
Youngji is a great listener and source of comfort for Eunhee, but at the same time Youngji is an enigma because she doesn’t share much about herself. Her origins are mysterious—she pops up as the new Chinese teacher at Eunhee’s cram school and introduces herself while not really revealing much apart from how she’s taking time off university. Seen through Eunhee’s eyes, Youngji is someone she looks up to. As a viewer, we see her as someone who is empathetic—she is giving towards Eunhee, noticing a girl in need of attention and affection. Youngji understands how Eunhee struggles with self-expression at home or in school as she is always shut down. In the little classroom at cram school, Youngji gives space for Eunhee to voice her innermost questions and fears and, most of all, is honest with her.
While Youngji gets Eunhee to open up and share her thoughts and feelings, she herself is quite opaque to the audience. When we first meet Youngji, it is through Eunhee spotting her smoking in the stairwell of the cram school. To Eunhee’s 14-year-old eyes, she seems sophisticated, mature, intriguing. Most of all, her smoking indicates she is a bit of a rebel, something Eunhee identifies with. Smoking is heavily frowned upon amongst women in South Korean culture, and women have had to cross streets from their workplaces to smoke or hide themselves to avoid stares2“Living as a female smoker in Korea”, Jun Ji Hye, Rachael Lee, Baek Byung Yeul, (2013), The Korea Times, retrieved from http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/culture/2013/01/399_128881.html. The possibility of being seen smoking by her students and employers suggests her laissez-faire attitude, reinforced by how she casually divulges that the previous teacher was fired. Hints of who she is, and her past are suggested only: we can only guess why she was on break from university, her love for literature is evidenced by the copy of Herman Hesse’s Knulp, which Eunhee uses as a cue to gift Youngji with another book, The Red and the Black, by Stendhal. Director Kim chose Knulp because she saw parallels in Youngji and the character of Knulp. They both live outside social conventions, but do not condescend upon those who do. She also stated that Youngji is a feminist and an activist3“Coming of age in Korea—Director Kim Bora discusses House of Hummingbird”, Peter Kim George, (2019), Mubi, retrieved from https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/coming-of-age-in-korea-kim-bora-discusses-house-of-hummingbird, which would align with the ’90s setting seeing as a significant wave of feminism in South Korea rose during that era and was led by politically charged female college students.
Kim Sae Byuk as Youngji conveys the quiet, meditative, private and lonely nature of the character through stillness—she understands that less can inform so much more in a performance. The still, economical way Youngji carries herself and stares out of the window pensively as she smokes. How she holds her cigarette. The deliberate and measured way she speaks. The lilt in her tone when she asks questions about the girls that indicate genuine curiosity, as opposed to judging them for their likes or dislikes. The melancholic way she sings to break a frosty atmosphere between former friends Eunhee and Jisuk that spurs them to eventually reconcile. There is always a perfect calibration in the actress’s performance to pull back just enough, because that is who Youngji is.
The only time we ever see part of Youngji’s vulnerability slip through the cracks is when she visits Eunhee in the hospital, and choking back, she tells Eunhee not to just take the beatings from her brother. She has come to care about Eunhee deeply, and Eunhee’s vulnerability and emotional honesty teases that part out of her. She smiles widely at Eunhee and strokes her hair, a demonstration of physical affection in contrast to her startled and awkward reaction when Eunhee tried to hug her previously. Through Youngji, Eunhee found someone who offered her comfort, wisdom and an irreplaceable connection to another human being. Through Eunhee, who may not be the most extroverted of girls and yet wears her emotions and vulnerabilities openly, Youngji may have been taking the first steps in allowing herself to be more vulnerable.
But part of the tragedy of Youngji’s character is her hesitation in letting her guard down. After visiting Eunhee in the hospital, Youngji disappears without a goodbye. When Eunhee eventually receives a letter from her, Youngji even writes, “I’m sorry I didn’t say goodbye. One day, I’ll tell you all about it.” Even in her last letter to Eunhee, she offers great wisdom, but is vague and evasive about herself. Of course, that decision becomes one that will haunt the entire last act of the film, even as it ends on a hopeful note, with Eunhee irrevocably shaped by Youngji’s kindness and infinite empathy.
That final scene focuses on Eunhee’s face to show her pensively looking at a crowd of her peers. It is a deeply moving note to end the film on. An interpretation of this final scene is that through Youngji’s lack of judgment, inquisitive and understanding nature, Eunhee may hone those same instincts in how she sees and connects with people so that she may find, connect and share once more, something as precious and rare as the time she shared, however briefly, with Youngji.
Eunhee & Herself
In House of Hummingbird, Director Kim uses the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge as the film’s “climax”. This real-life event serves as a metaphor for a South Korea rushing towards economic success and forsaking mental well-being.
Eunhee starts the story off being emotionally neglected by her family and peers, unable to understand her place in the world, and has no dreams and goals. Through the influence of of the women in her life, she is able to observe and empathise more deeply with the people around her, becoming more sensitive to the unseen pains that we all carry.
We may never be able to know each other fully or shoulder the burdens of the ones we love. As relationships fracture and strain due to an inability to express oneself, we understand how important honest communication is, but also how difficult it can be to find the courage to do so. In many Asian societies, emotions and feelings are not easily expressed. There is a collective mentality to avoid imposing on others. Being so openly vulnerable is seen as a weakness. There is an unhealthy thinking to bear the pain in silence because others have it worse. This results in people bottling up their own suffering and hurt to their own detriment.
We observe how Korean society has been shaped by patriarchal values that have left women and girls feeling limited and repressed, and thus there is a thread of melancholy and tragedy laced into the fabric of each of the stories of girls and women in this film.
However, Director Kim avoids cynicism and bleakness, showing that there are also many slivers of kindness and hope that can be found through simple everyday acts between the female characters. These gestures, like sticking up for each other, sharing food or wiping away a friend’s tears, tell of far more complex relationships and women.
And finally, as a story about Eunhee herself, we are shown that no matter how ordinary and unremarkable one may seem to be, you too are a precious, shining life, and you matter.