Making the unbearable bearable

An unlikely friendship develops between a teenager (Park Ji-hu, left) and her teacher (Kim Sae-byuk, far left) in House Of Hummingbird.
An unlikely friendship develops between a teenager (Park Ji-hu, right) and her teacher (Kim Sae-byuk, left) in House Of Hummingbird.PHOTO: ANTICIPATE PICTURES
An unlikely friendship develops between a teenager (Park Ji-hu, left) and her teacher (Kim Sae-byuk, far left) in House Of Hummingbird.
Film-maker Kim Bo-ra

Coming-of-age film House Of Hummingbird looks at money and class in South Korea and how love and friendship can help one survive

Like so many South Koreans, film-maker Kim Bo-ra had to attend a hagwon, or cram school, outside school hours.

"I went to two cram schools, one for Chinese characters and another for mathematics. Most of my friends went to three or four cram schools," she tells The Straits Times in a telephone interview from her home in Seoul.

"It was insane how much we studied, but how little we learnt about life," says Kim, 38.

Those memories, both of teen naivete and the drudgery of extra lessons, have fed into House Of Hummingbird (M18, 138 minutes, 2018), her first feature.

The drama opens on Saturday at Oldham Theatre as part of the Asian Film Archive's (AFA) New Releases programme.

Kim will be present for a question-and-answer session on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm.

AFA executive director Karen Chan says the film is "sensitive and lyrical, with a focused feminine perspective" and thus fits with the New Releases programme's focus on exciting works by contemporary Asian film-makers.

"It has touched international audiences," adds Ms Chan in an e-mail.

  • BOOK IT / HOUSE OF HUMMINGBIRD (M18)

  • WHEN: Saturday till Sept 28, various times

    WHERE: Oldham Theatre, National Archives of Singapore, 1 Canning Rise

    ADMISSION: Tickets at $10 from the AFA website (go to asianfilmarchive.org) or at the box office. Writer-director Kim Bo-ra will speak at the screenings on Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm.

The film won Best International Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival 2019 and the Youth Jury Generation 14Plus Grand Prix (Best Feature Film) at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The story is set in 1994. Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) is a schoolgirl finding it hard to fit in, in school and at home.

Through her eyes, the audience sees her first fumbling attempts at being a girlfriend; her struggles with being seen for who she is, rather than who her parents and teachers want her to be; and how that loneliness is funnelled into an intense friendship with one of her cram school teachers, Yong-ji (Kim Sae-byuk).

Woven into that coming-of-age tale, which is loosely based on writer-director Kim's life, are moments that point to how South Koreans, chasing dreams of success in a period of economic prosperity, had become more aware of money and class.

Eun-hee's family owns a rice-cake shop and lives in a large grey apartment block. One might think that they are lower-class. In fact, in one scene, she is snubbed by the mother of a boy who likes her.

Kim, who has a masters in fine arts from Columbia University School of the Arts in New York, provides context. Their block might look basic, but Eun-hee's family is actually middle-class and lives in a fancy neighbourhood.

The director explains: "Her family is trying really hard to be on the same level as their rich neighbours. But because they have a rice-cake store, it's not the same as being a doctor or professor."

Seen through the eyes of Eun-hee, a girl bullied by her brother at home and criticised in school for slacking, South Korea seems like a harsh place.

Kim says her film is a condemnation, adding: "When you love something, you can criticise with love."

The film's primary focus, though, is how love and friendship can make the unbearable bearable.

She says: "It is about how one can survive and be resilient when the whole of society is going crazy."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2019, with the headline 'Making the unbearable bearable'. Print Edition | Subscribe