There is a certain tentativeness to the 14-year-old Eun-hee (Ji-hu Park) in writer-director Bora Kim’s sure-handed feature debut “House of Hummingbird,” a tender yet somewhat underpowered coming-of-age film set in the Seoul of 1994. Lonely, reserved, and stuck in a dysfunctional household among her frequently quarrelling parents (Seung-Yeon Lee and In-gi Jeong), her troublemaking sister Su-hee (Su-yeon Park), and bully of a brother Dae-hoon (Sang-yeon Sohn), eighth-grader Eun-hee seems to move through life involuntarily, like a bird with a pair of broken wings. And yet, she still copes with routine neglect behind a youthful shield of resilience — Kim slowly lays bare Eun-hee’s toughened spirit from a minimalist and acutely feminine perspective.
Loosely inspired by the writer-director’s own adolescence, Kim’s personal film timidly drifts without narrative spikes for a while, until a sense of direction emerges alongside era-specific facts (like Seoul’s undisciplined real-estate expansion) in the backdrop. In measured increments, Kim foreshadows an ill-fated climax tied to the historical collapse of the Seongsu Bridge, a tragedy that claims lives already hanging by a thread.
In that perilous zone is Eun-hee’s middle-class family, who work long hours in their rice cake shop. Often bereft of parental supervision as a result, Eun-hee tends to her own needs, sketches comics instead of engaging with class readings, and finds comfort in the company of her best friend Ji-suk (Seo-yoon Park). But even time spent on her art or hanging out with that female ally feel like parts of an aimless whole, while she continually seeks love and purpose elsewhere, away from her abusive clan.
The world in which she dwells doesn’t appear to have much to offer to the artistic teen other than dull dead-ends. “Instead of karaoke, I will go to Seoul National University,” chant her classmates in one scene, under the command of a disciplined teacher and cultural code that label any leisurely activity outside of studying to be the work of “a delinquent.” Eun-hee is hardly a menace, save for an unfortunate shoplifting incident here and one innocent-enough visit to an underground dance club there. But she isn’t exactly Seoul National University material, either. So what’s a sensitive young girl to do — so uncared for that she gets sent to the doctor alone on the heels of a major health scare — when no one is around to sculpt or even understand her?
With new characters stepping into the foreground, Eun-hee’s small world shifts in both trivial and seismic ways in due course. The most significant change arrives with a new tutor named Young-ji (Sae-byuk Kim), who takes over Eun-hee’s cram school class and becomes a dependable mentor for the until-then invisible girl. Taking notice of Eun-hee’s unique talents and cruel surroundings (and likely seeing a great deal of her younger self in her), Young-ji nurtures her pupil’s floundering existence. Meanwhile, two romantic interests also enter the picture: the well-meaning but equally inexperienced young boy Ji-wan (Yoon-seo Jeong) and an amiably mysterious girl named Yu-ri (Hye-in Seol).
Together with cinematographer Gook-hyun Kang, Kim intimately captures Eun-hee’s budding sexuality in a non-invasive manner, focusing on the innocence of stolen kisses and peerless pains of early-life heartbreaks. Maintaining a soft-hued and timeless look throughout, Kim purposely keeps it light on visual period cues — the feeling of the era remains hazy except when 2 Unlimited’s “No Limit” loudly bangs out of the speakers, TV news marks historical events, and pagers occasionally appear in plain sight.
The filmmaker also charts the unique camaraderie between Eun-hee and Young-ji sweetly, with closeups that accentuate the duo’s silent and organic bond. Impressive throughout, Park especially shines in these scenes with a wisdom-filled performance beyond her years, leading up to an earned outburst against her family and an appalling case of domestic violence. Sound designer Myung-hwan Han (known for his work for renowned auteurs like Park Chan-wook and Hong Sang-soo) audibly seizes this heartbreaking episode in all its aching weight.
A touch overlong, “House of Hummingbird” doesn’t leave the most powerful emotional mark. Still, it lands on a poignant aftertaste through Kim’s serene attentiveness to the rhythms and details of everyday life — like a random twinkle in Eun-hee’s often-defeated eyes or the way sunbeams flicker around the curtains and dark furniture of her overcrowded home — with a peaceful style reminiscent of Hirokazu Kore-eda. And perhaps one can’t entirely blame the filmmaker for caring so deeply about Eun-hee and ending up with excess in the process. Kim still grasps the fleeting reality of female adolescence with sympathy, through a decisively non-whimsical film that has ideas about the workings of both family and society.