‘House of Hummingbird’ – movie review

Last night I got to watch an excellent movie. The director is a Korean woman named Bora Kim. I think I might have seen a short movie by her before, the name certainly ‘rings a bell’ as they say in England. The subject matter of the movie was the experiences of a young girl, of about 12- 14 years I guess, growing up in a quite poor, hard-working family, traumatised by its own struggles.

Sharing a small space puts an enormous psychological pressure on people in relative poverty, compared with those who grow up with more ample space in which to negotiate rapidly changing minds and identities. Here at the centre of a huge concrete architectural edifice we find all the vulnerabilities of a young heart in a rapidly growing and changing mind and body.

People can quickly learn to resent and despise one another in cramped and straitened circumstances, and in part this movie documents the ways in which a family reaches a kind of nadir or low point in their negotiations of space, economics and identity, only to find glimpses of new understandings and a promise of happier times by movie’s end.

I was very glad to be watching a movie made by a woman about the experiences of a young girl. Sadly, this is a rare experience. In fact, I suspect the number of such movies I have watched in my life might amount to a mere handful, a sure sign of a terrible and wasteful gender imbalance in our society. Everything about this film is unusually sensitive. Its narratives progress at a subtle and soft, almost unnoticeable pace, and while we certainly witness the brutalities that can encircle a young girl’s development we also encounter various kinds and moments of tenderness. When we do, we see all the more how every human being is, either deep down, or right there on the surface, fragile, vulnerable, sensitive, in need of love, care, understanding and companionship.

I’ve alluded to patriarchy above, regarding the movie-making business and the dominance of male tales and perspectives and power. In this movie the men are often at fault of oppressive violence, misunderstanding love, cheating, presumption and arrogance, all oozing out of outmoded traditions such as male primo-geniture (the promoted importance of the first born male in any family). Eventually though, we see that the men too need to crack, break-open and cry to find the love and tenderness inside them, if and when they are confident enough to ‘let their guard down’ (yes, a boxing metaphor).

As for the young girl’s relationships with other girls and women, these can sometimes be brutal too, at least in the way that children can be competitive, spiteful, and fickle about friendships. Her mother is caught-up at the heart of all the domestic strife, and quietly grieving for a brother who has suddenly and prematurely died (perhaps killed himself?). That brother mysteriously visited his sister, just before his death, seemingly to remind her of all the (overshadowed and wasted) intellectual promise she had shown before getting married, a promise that he, despite being the prioritised first-born son,, never actually had, and thus could never fulfil for the family.

Meanwhile, an influential and redemptive female figure appears in the form of a cram-school teacher, supplying after-school extra Chinese lessons. This elegant, educated, politically left-leaning and independent-minded young woman takes the main character into her confidence and ‘under her wing’, showing her a kind of love, faith and possibility that can’t be found at school or within the family.

Blood, violence, pain, illness and tragedy all help, obliquely and eventually (and again slowly and subtly) to bring the family together and to leave the story ending on an optimistic note. One reviewer claimed this film was a little too long, but I enjoyed it so much (crying much of the way through, as I all-too-easily and often do) that I saw the length of the film as merely a ramification of the directors’ insistence on telling the story her own way, with an appropriate and requisite sense of ease and at a gentle pace (perhaps embodying what the philosopher Julia Kristeva once deemed ‘woman’s time’).

There is also a wider historico-political frame to this movie. It’s set in 1994, and may be autobiographical (I will be watching an interview with the director streamed live this evening -see links below- and hoping to find out more about this). On the way to school the children pass protesting banners that proclaim the plight of people being forced out of their homes to accommodate aggressive redevelopment. Small-space, impoverished and regimented, identical high-rise housing are always part of the political ‘frame’ in which this young life is presented. At one point, during a walk in the dark with her inspiring and enigmatic cram-school teacher friend, the main character asks about these banners: “why would anyone take away someone else’s home?”. It’s a simple and naive sounding question but one which seems to have the whole absurd and bullying structure of capitalism loaded within it.

The ultimate tragedy of the film sees its ‘small’ narratives, on which we have concentrated, caught up with a national disaster when a major bridge crossing Seoul’s Han river collapses during morning rush hour (a real historical event). This, again, implies corrupt, competitive, corrosive and careless forces operating within a society focused and founded on profit and exploitation when it clearly – given the central narrative and meaning of the film – should instead prioritise that very fragility, tenderness, and care promoted so subtly, and I think wonderfully throughout this movie.

BTW, I haven’t yet discovered how and why the title applies to the movie ? ?

If you want to see it live-streamed for free you can do so today until 11pm 24th Jan 2021 – I think using THIS LINK.
Meanwhile there is a live streamed interview with the director at 11pm UK time. Links here:

With many thanks to Philip Gowman of London Korean Links for letting me know about this film and these events.


2 thoughts on “‘House of Hummingbird’ – movie review

  1. Thank you. As I say, you can watch it (plus a live interview with the director) free streamed today using the links at the end of the post. But it came out in 2018 so must be relatively easy to find. Thanks for reading!


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