Coming of Age in Korea: Kim Bora Discusses "House of Hummingbird"

The South Korean director discusses her nuanced and moving debut, about a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in the 1990s.
Peter Kim George

House of Hummingbird

Kim Bora’s debut feature, House of Hummingbird, is a meticulous and compelling study of adolescence filtered through the lens of a fourteen-year-old girl, Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu), coming of age in mid-90s Korea. The film is uncompromising in its cultural and historical specificity—we never get the sense that this film is anything other than this a young Korean teenager’s particular journey through the pains of realizing how flawed her family members are, the inevitable betrayal that arrives in trusting others, and the difficulty of being kind to oneself. In doing so, however, the film strikes a chord with a collective and unconscious desire instanced by recent American coming-of-age narratives including Ladybird, Eighth Grade, and Boyhood:a desire to change the circumstances of our actual past by better understanding it.   

What distinguishes House of Hummingbird is how little it relies on nostalgia. The film sets an unadorned, naturalistic tone that allows the audience space to bear witness to the film’s small but poignant moments. Eun-hee’s home is a pressure cooker for the mini-dramas breaking out in the lives of each family member: Eun-hee’s father is maligned by customers daily; her mother struggles with depression; her siblings cope with life-or-death expectations of academic achievement. None of these characters set out to hurt each other, but they cannot help but constantly doing so. Eun-hee is our eyes and ears to a world that is indifferent to its own cruelty, and this is true both for her immediate circle of family and school as well as the larger context of Korea in the mid-90s. Positioned between the military dictatorships of the 80s and early 90s and the 1997 IMF Financial Crisis, Hummingbird is as much a coming-of-age story for Korea as it is for Eun-hee.

Young-ji (Kim Sae-byuk), Eun-hee’s after school teacher, feels like a stand-in for the filmmaker herself; Young-ji alone can glimpse Eun-hee’s inner life, and appears the one character capable of returning Eun-hee’s need for genuine connection – but what follows here, too, is a story of loss.

Bora Kim, who holds an MFA in film directing from Columbia University, is one of a number of contemporary Korean female filmmakers whose work offers thought-provoking portraits of life in Korea, especially as it relates to gender, class, and sexuality. I spoke with Kim in New York upon the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

NOTEBOOK: Your film made me think about how exactly opposite the experience must be of writing and directing a film about a 14-year-old, in which you are in control, versus actually being a 14-year-old, which in the film feels like a time of extreme disempowerment in which Eun-hee is subject to the whims of everyone around her, who is more powerful than her. In beginning to make this film, were there particular core emotions and experiences you wanted to explore?

KIM BORA: I revisited my adolescence when I was in New York. I was born in Korea and I came to New York to do my master’s degree, and at that time I was emotionally very much not content, so I used to have nightmares about my adolescence. That was the start of my film. I started to have nightmares about being back to middle school. In my dreams, I had to go back to middle school for three years and it was a disaster. You know, Korean guys have nightmares of having to go back to the army even after they finish their service, so I felt like I was in the same position. So I asked myself, “why am I having these nightmares? Let’s revisit that period, because there’s something going on underneath.” So I began to write down episodes and scenes and dialogues of situations I was going through, so it wasn’t like a screenplay from the beginning but a collection of my notes here and there, and I started to write a treatment in 2013. It took a long time. I started with therapy and meditation, and after that, I began to write.

NOTEBOOK: How did your feelings evolve as you began writing the full screenplay and as you began casting? Did your emotions take on a specific form and guide the direction of your film?

BORA: You made a good point about writing and making a film about a 14-year-old girl versus being in the body of a 14-year-old girl, but I realized that even though we’re grown up physically, we still carry all the emotional baggage from that time that we need to revisit. At the time, I thought I was the character Young-ji, mature, so on. I thought I was mature, but throughout the process of making and casting the film, I realized I still have an Eun-hee part inside of me. So that helped me make this film. I also did my research about middle school girls and I talked to many middle school girls, and then talked about the emotions they go through with my main actress. She and I had a good working relationship and we would talk for days about anything, not just rehearsal. We tried not to do too many rehearsals because I did not want to kill the freshness. We talked about what it’s like growing up, and what she’s concerned with these days.

NOTEBOOK: The very first scene of the film establishes the intimate relationship between the camera and Eun-hee in which it is just the camera and her and no one else, and that seems to structure how the camera lives in this world throughout the film. Eun-hee is often times abandoned or misunderstood or unseen in various ways, but the camera never fails to see her. I was curious if you came to the cinematography with a certain intention in mind in terms of placing the camera and Eun-hee in one corner, the world in the other.

BORA: Of course, my cinematographer [Kang Guk-hyun] and I talked about how we wanted to focus on Eun-hee’s emotions. In terms of camera movement and shot size, we followed her face and emotions and her body movement. Eun-hee’s way of seeing life was our intention and we tried our best to be very honest about camera movement and camera language throughout the film because this film is a realistic film, and we didn’t just want to zoom in and move in the camera to make it fancy. We wanted to focus on the emotion. We had to make decisions of when to move the camera, when not to move, and every decision to move the camera was a very conscious decision, and our instincts told us when to do so. I’m very glad that my DP and I had good instincts.

NOTEBOOK: That also seems true for sound design. The film doesn’t rely on a score to reach a particular emotional register. Often times it feels like coming-of-age films, especially American ones, rely on musical scores to reach an emotional high point, one that perhaps the film is not confident it can reach without a sentimentalized score. The music in the film feels unique, and it seems to respond to the film’s emotional registers, rather than simply holding them up.

BORA: My composer [Matija Strniša] and I talked about how to convey the music throughout the film and he did a really good job and I purposely asked him to make electronic kind of music, very ambient electronic music that has a contemporary mood, because this is a period piece. Because of that, I wanted music that felt a little modern—not hipster, but sort of classical. I asked him to make classical inspired electronic music.

NOTEBOOK: Regarding the actress you cast for the role of Eun-hee, I was reading in another interview that it took you three years to cast for Eun-hee. That’s a lot of patience. Were you ever worried that you might not find the right actor for this role?

BORA: That was my biggest fear. Really. I’m really thankful for Ji-hu, who plays Eun-hee. She calls this film her first love. I was so fortunate to find her, in the end. I didn’t cast every day for three years, but I would have auditions time to time whenever I got the chance. The year we shot the film, I met this girl, she didn’t even have an agent. She came to Seoul from Daegu, it’s not the countryside but it’s not a big fancy city. From the very beginning she was good. When it comes to reading lines and reading the subtext between lines, kids actors often can’t read the subtext, but she could, and she was very intelligent. I was very lucky. It was a blissful encounter.

NOTEBOOK: I noticed two instances in which Eun-hee picks up a novel. First is Knulp, by Herman Hesse, then The Red and the Black, by Stendhal. The way the film focuses on the inner life of Eun-hee feels like a very novelistic project. Were you thinking of novels when you wrote the screenplay? 

BORA: Yes.

NOTEBOOK: What novels inspired you?

BORA: I love reading novels, and novels really inspired me in making this film. Especially Hesse’s books, his other books are much more popular than Knulp, but the main character of Knulp is very similar to Young-ji, because Knulp is a character who does not follow social norms or rules. He doesn’t get married, he doesn’t have kids. One thing I like about him is that he does not follow social norms or rules, but he doesn’t criticize others that do. Sometimes people criticize others who have normal lives, but I don’t agree with them because these people are just different. Young-ji is a character who is an activist and feminist, but she does not label others unlike her as stupid or mediocre, they’re just different. 

In terms of Stendhal, Julian Sorel, the main character in The Red and the Black was so similar to my own character back in middle school. He thought deeply about things and was ashamed about himself. Following his journey was very interesting to me. But back to the question of the film being novelistic, I think I’m more interested in reading novels when I’m writing a screenplay. I rarely watch films when I’m writing a screenplay. I want to get inspired by other mediums like painting or photography. I read a lot of novels when I was writing it and I think that gets conveyed in my film. I guess I’m more used to seeing the world in a novelistic way.

NOTEBOOK: I want to ask about men crying. Something that draws me to Hong Sang-soo’s work is that he has an incredible way—and tell me what you think—of capturing how men cry. It’s an ugly crying, because the men in his film aren’t used to crying and they don’t know how to cry so it comes out halting and gross. You have two instances of men crying in your film.

BORA: [laughs] Yes.

NOTEBOOK: Feelings in your film are something that are at once too dangerous to bring up, and also too trivial to mention. It’s a paradox that’s happening, especially with the men.

BORA: I never thought about the connection between my film and Hong Sang-soo’s films, but yes it makes sense because Hong Sang-soo also makes fun of men in general in his films, but my touch on that subject is warmer than his. His is colder. And he’s a man, so my approach has a different context. You are Korean-American, so you know how Korean men behave.


BORA: I have actually seen many Korean guys crying abruptly, it’s so absurd. I’m surprised each time I see it. It’s interesting because they don’t know how to express their emotions, but when they cry it’s so out of context, out of nowhere. And when they do, they’re so immersed in their own crying, it sometimes is a pity because they’re not even aware of what’s going on because they’re so focused on their emotions. But I didn’t want to make it so funny or negative in my film. I wanted to show that these people are human beings and they are three-dimensional. I wanted to show a different side to men, maybe men in general, not just Korean men. I was thinking at the dinner after the Seongsu Bridge collapses [in the film], I thought who’s going to cry the most? Maybe the brother because he has such guilt about everything. People might think he’s the one who’s getting everything and all the attention, but he’s not. He’s also the victim, and he doesn’t get loved well, it’s a toxic way of loving.

NOTEBOOK: It’s a conditional love.

BORA: It’s a conditional love, and he’s under a lot of pressure. I guess I have such affection towards this male character in this family because it’s a reflection of my family that I love deeply now, so I try my best to depict them as humanely as I can.

NOTEBOOK: You were just talking about the dinner scene after the Seongsu Bridge collapse. Koreans care a great deal about food, and it is such a big part of this film. Food becomes a way that emotions get safely rerouted, where emotions can safely land. What is it about Koreans and food?

BORA: I think you’re on point because food is important in general for Asian families. I was very satisfied with my mom’s food when I was young. She didn’t know how to express her emotions but she would always make really nice food. I am her age now when she was raising our family, and now I think, wow she did such a great job! She made such great food that I don’t make nowadays. I wanted to show this family’s really warm side, and even though they’re messy in their own ways, and each family member is dealing with their own problems, it doesn’t mean that they’re always unhappy.

NOTEBOOK: You were just talking about the scene where Eun-hee is eating gamja-jeon [potato pancakes] while her mother quietly watches. As a Korean-American, I have that memory with my own mother.

BORA: No one will ever feed you like that.

NOTEBOOK: I imagine you will be asked or have been asked whether this film is your life story, or whether the film is autobiographical. I’m not interested in this question. Rather, I’m curious whether you have a different relationship to the film now, versus when it premiered in Korea at the Busan International Film Festival, where it was considered a “domestic” film, and then to Berlinale and now Tribeca, where it is considered an “international” film.

BORA: I’ve never gotten this question from anybody, so I have to think. In the very beginning, I felt like this film was me. Totally me. But throughout the course of writing the screenplay for five years, I got to have a healthy distance. Now after this [Tribeca] premiere, I don’t really feel it is about me, it’s about collective human emotions, about everyone’s emotions and everyone’s past. It’s beyond my experience now. Seeing people’s reaction was really emotional. At Busan, everybody was crying. At Berlinale, it was very different, they were very calm. They expressed their reactions in a different way. But at the Busan premiere, I really felt like this was about collective trauma that we have from the 90s as an underdeveloped country, as a person that lived through that era, as a woman who was living in that era of a male-dominated society. Korea still is like that, in terms of male dominance. It’s still going on. So a lot of audience members were finding themselves in the film. So I don’t feel this film is about me anymore, it became bigger. It is really related to my past, but it is beyond that now.

NOTEBOOK: Have there been differences in how Korean critics talk about the representation of gay or bisexual identity in your film versus how critics at Berlinale or the States speak on the subject?

BORA: Somewhat. In Korea, people didn’t question much about Eun-hee’s bisexuality. In Korea, in middle school and high schools, girls often have crushes on each other. It’s common. They are fluid and open to bisexuality, as they don't define things yet. But when they enter colleges, things get changed. In Western countries, I am often asked why I depicted bisexuality in the film. For that question I always say, there is no reason. Bisexuality just exists, so I depicted it. Some people think that Eun-hee’s bisexuality is just a passing phase or an experiment. I don’t think it is an experiment. Lastly, the creative reason that I showed Eun-hee as a character who is interested in both boys and girls is to show Eun-hee is a character who doesn't judge. She is a rebellious and free spirit like little Youngji. In the context, I thought Eun-hee being bi is very natural and fits with her character. 

NOTEBOOK: If Eun-hee were with us in present day, she would be 37, 38?

BORA: [laughs] 37.

NOTEBOOK: In the history of Korean cinema there haven’t been as many female as male filmmakers. But there have been some recent and remarkable films by Korean female filmmakers, like Microhabitat by Jeon Go-woon and Our Love Story by Lee Hyun-ju, which seem to be about what it’s like to be a young Korean woman now, in her 30s, under capitalism. That seems to be a shared focus.

BORA: Female filmmakers deal with these subjects a lot because we ourselves are not financially stable, so we have to reflect ourselves in our work.  Lots of films are male-driven and female lead films are not funded easily. It is hard for women to even have the thought that they can make films. But we do have a new wave of female Korean filmmakers that are making good films regardless of whether they are female or not. But back to the subject of capitalism—women are having a tough time in Korea. So are men, but women especially, because we are still suffering the after-effects of the IMF financial crisis. But women are always under a double pressure because of gender inequality.

NOTEBOOK: That reminds me of a moment in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, in which a character says “there is no country for women.” You’ve said in another interview that there aren’t many other female filmmakers to look up to. Who are your inspirations as a filmmaker?

BORA: Actually, I like Lee Chang-dong. Although he has this conservative perception about women characters, I still appreciate his art. There are not so many female directors in Korea, but I would say that I really appreciate female Korean novelists like Oh Jung-hee. Growing up as a woman in Korea was tough, but was also a gift at the same time. If I were a Korean man, or a white male in the States, I would not have been able to make this film. You got to experience complex human emotions because you were going through a lot of things.

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