Director Bora Kim Takes Flight With Immersive Coming-of-Age Tale ‘House of Hummingbird’

Director/writer Bora Kim talks about her filmmaking journey behind making the critically acclaimed feature "House of Hummingbird."

Ji-hu Park in "House of Hummingbird."

Now playing in virtual theaters via Kino Marquee, House of Hummingbird has received a ton of critical acclaim (as well as awards) thanks to its realistic and compelling portrayal of a 14-year-old girl’s (Ji-hu Park) life in Korea. During our conversation, director/writer Bora Kim talked about the long road to getting the film made, the emotionally overwhelming reaction she has received from the movie, and why it was important to make a realistic movie about a middle school student.

House of Hummingbird centers on Eunhee (Ji-hu Park), an introspective teenager who tries her best to persevere through an abusive household and an ever changing dynamic with her close friends. Sae-byeok Kim co-stars as Yong-ji, a teacher who becomes Eunhee’s confidante and mentor, and this evocative friendship is just one of the many layers that make up this unforgettable narrative.

Growing up did you have your share of role models for filmmakers? Also how did your story evolve on a screenwriting level during the six years it took to make this film?

I started film in college and also in graduate school. It’s been almost like 20 years. I started film in 2000 which is really early.

As a female director, when I was studying film and after I graduated from college, there was not many female filmmakers. So I didn’t have many role models. There are a few female directors, but they were older than me and they were not in my network, so you feel like they were in different worlds.

I was questioning if I could be a film director. I was teaching film in universities after graduating from graduate school and that was actually one of the reasons why this film took (a long time). 

I was working as a lecturer and working on this project. I am the producer too and I had to get all the funding from the government because none of the investors were interested in this film because people like big budget, commercial films. They also think having the main character as a middle school girl, it’s not going to make money so I didn’t get any money from commercial investors. 

I got maybe like seven or six funding from all different institutions like Korean Film Council, Busan International Film Festival, Sundance Institute – so many different organizations. But I didn’t get a big chunk of money, so collecting all these small funds took many years.

Actually I finished the first draft within two months, but then since this process took a while . . . I was actually lucky enough to work on the script in a detailed manner and I got lucky that I didn’t get any commercial money. So this film exists as it is.

Ji-hu Park in “House of Hummingbird” (Well Go USA)

House of Hummingbird has received international acclaim, and how much does it mean for you personally to achieve this level of success with your film?

In Korea, people try not to brag about themselves so they always talk like ‘Oh no, that was nothing’ (laughing). But this is an interview with an American, so maybe I should brag a little more!

There are three film awards, Baek Sang, Blue Dragon Film Awards and Grand Bell Awards. House of Hummingbird got awards from all these three major film awards in Korea. It was the first time for an indie movie to be nominated for Best Film and Best Director because all these three awards have given awards to indie directors but they don’t nominate indies for Best Film or Best Director because it’s a different section. It’s usually for commercial films or a director who has been working (a long time). So it’s the first time for an indie director to get Best Director award in Baek Sang. I was the second female director to win the award.

Parasite was in the same category, so it was very amazing. But of course Parasite got Best Film but it was my honor to receive the Best Director at the prestigious awards ceremony.

House of Hummingbird (Well Go USA)

That was amazing you went up against Director Park?

(laughs) They gave him Best Film but some people complained about this film award because they didn’t even watch it. Parasite was a big hit. House of Hummingbird was also a mega hit as an indie film but not everyone watched it. Actually because of that award, more people started to talk about House of Hummingbird.

What kind of reaction did you receive from people who have seen the film?

After House of Hummingbird got released, the ticket sales were amazing. 

It was very overwhelming to see its success. Whenever I had Q&As with the audience, a lot of the audience – they raised their hand and while they were asking questions, they started to cry. It wasn’t just once. So many people – they couldn’t even finish their sentence because they were so emotional. I also cried. My actors cried. Because it was so touching and it was a very deep, human connection between the filmmakers and the audience. 

A lot of members of the arthouse cinema said they have never seen something like this. They never saw an audience reacting this way. It was actually sensational and I was a little (shocked) at some point because almost every one really talked about the film. Even though you didn’t watch the film yet, you knew it. I was on primetime news. It was very unusual for them to deal with an independent film as primetime news. 

A lot of people say that this is a sensational film in Korean history. And I got 59 awards so far and when we were in Korean Film Critics Awards, the Korean Film Critics Association said “We got two gifts for the 100 years of Korean Cinema. One is Parasite and the other one is House of Hummingbird.”

So I was really touched. It was just sensational. I feel a little embarrassed to talk about myself but it’s been quite a journey.

Ji-hu Park in “House of Hummingbird” (Well Go USA)

Even though Eun-hee’s family members have their share of flaws and methods of abuse, they are also loving individuals. Can you talk about making the family members fully realized characters?

I try my best to avoid black and white because the world is not black and white. People want to make a conclusion that the other is the wrong person. I know I can be wrong. When I judge people or some certain situation, I always know I can be wrong.

I always try to view the world as some kind of complex universe because one human being has so many things at once. I can be happy one day, but I can be sad and depressed. I feel blessed sometimes. It’s everything. I experience a lot of emotions. Not just one emotion. When you really deeply look into yourself, you realize that the other person is also as complex as you.

I have been meditating for 20 years since I was 18. I don’t meditate every day but I was always in the world of meditation and therapy. I have been getting therapy personally also. That work has helped me to be a better filmmaker when I create characters. 

When you really deeply look into yourself, you really know how other people are. We are very complex beings. I don’t label someone as a good person or a bad person. I’m a complex person. I can be good. I can be bad. I can be everything. 

When I deeply got into meditation, there is no bad or good in yourself. You’re just everything. I try to apply that experience to the film and making the family as complex beings. They are also victims of this heterosexual, hierarchical, male dominated society. They are also victims. People who are hurt deeply themselves hurt others. 

I wanted to really have affection, compassion and respect even when I depict family or friends or school teachers who are treating Eun-hee bad. Especially the family dynamic, I try to be really aware whether I’m depicting these people badly or just as pressure to the main character.

I wanted to bring some sort of emotional sins of the parents, for example the dad crying at the hospital. Or the mom, she can be really gaslighting the daughter when she says “Don’t fight with your brother” when Eunhee just got beaten. But then in the other scene, (her mother) cooks for her. She’s everything. Everyone’s mom is like that.

The mother can be really harsh and push the right buttons, but at the same time she cooks for the family and tries  to make money to support the daughter and the other children. She’s a complex being. That is the way that I tried to create the characters.

Ji-hu Park in “House of Hummingbird” (Well Go USA)

I also loved how House of Hummingbird delivers an up close and personal look at a teenage girl without being stereotypical or superficial.

A lot of films by many directors which are dealing with middle-school girls . . . first of all, they don’t put middle school girls as the main character. Middle school girls have been seen as (secondary) characters and even if they are the main characters, they are more like very easygoing, bright teenagers.

I always felt weird about seeing teenage girls who are talking about boys all the time and always talking about looks. I was not like that and my friends were not like that. Middle school girls are interested in many different aspects of life and I went through a lot different emotions (as a teenager). Sadness, depression, loneliness and longing a sense of belonging. It’s the same – the way I go through emotions right now (as an adult). 

From now up until I was making House of Hummingbird, I wasn’t very happy with the depiction of teenage girls in that way. It’s the way media wants to see teenage girls that way – but not the actual teenage girls. They have so many different faces. They’re not just easy going girls who are only interesting in some specific subset that society thinks they are interested in. 

I wanted to bring the real face of middle school girls in the character of Eunhee and a lot of girls and a lot of women expressed gratitude to me saying, “You know what, your film gave language to the pain I went through in high school. Not many films depicted that pain clearly and realistically like your film did. After I watched your film, I felt my trauma finally had this vocabulary.”

It was so touching to hear and I’ve received so many handwritten letters and they always write with the yellow paper because Eunhee sends a letter to the teacher with a very cute yellow envelope. A lot of people send me yellow envelopes with a letter. It’s so touching and overwhelming. I can’t really express how I was thankful for the audience’s reaction. I can’t express with words. It was beautiful.

Are you also getting people to read more Herman Hesse’s Knulp? How do these books resonate with you as a storyteller?

The book that Eunhee finds out from the teacher Yong-Ji’s (Sae-byeok Kim) book shelf is Knulp by Herman Hesse. That book is about is about a lonely man – actually I wouldn’t say he is lonely but people think so because he is not married and he doesn’t have children. He’s basically not living a normal life. But actually he’s very happy.

He cares about people and he really listens to people but he doesn’t even judge people who are seemingly leading a normal life. Because a lot of outsiders, they think they’re the best and normal people are idiots. But Knulp – he’s not even judging other people that way. He thinks “I’m leading this life and you are that way and we are all right. We are just different.”

I really love how he views life and I think Eunhee and Yong-Ji are like that too. 

A portion of my audio interview with Bora Kim is featured in the latest episode of Flick City. The full audio interview is up for our CinemAddicts Patreon members:

Can you name one of your all time favorite films and why does this film continue to inspire you?

It’s this Taiwanese director Edward Yang. He made Yi Yi which one big award in Cannes in 2000. A lot of people who are interested in Taiwanese cinema they know Yi Yi. It’s a great film. It’s actually three hours long but you don’t feel like it’s that long because it’s the universe. It’s actually about one Taiwanese family who lives in Taipei and you feel not many things are happening in the film but it is everything.

There is a death, marriage, love, break-up, a sense of loss, (just) everything. When you see this one particular Taiwanese family living in Taipei, you see the modern history of Taiwan. 

The film really brings out a lot of deep emotions and whenever I watch the film, I feel like I really don’t want this film to be ending. I want to live in the film because it is so meditative and calm and brings a lot of emotions. 

Whenever I am stressed, I watch the film (and pick out) certain scenes that I like.

I also review House of Hummingbird on the latest episode of Movie Mainline, a podcast I co-host with Bruce Purkey, Eric Holmes, and Luis Lacau:

What were your family’s reaction to the final cut of your film?

They were really happy and supporting my film. They knew I was going to make House of Hummingbird and I would share the audition clips with my family and ask their feedback. We talked a lot about the film and I had intense conversations with all of my family members even before this film got released. They knew about it and they read the script and they gave me really good feedback about the cast and life.

We went through a lot of conversation and when they finally watched the film, they were very moved and touched. There was some kind of beautiful silence. They didn’t say many things right after they watched it but they sent me really beautiful text messages of how grateful they felt after watching it.

I was a little worried about my family because this film is not an autobiographical film but it is partly autobiographical. In the end, it’s fiction, but some of the parts are related to my own family in terms of emotion. My father said, “Don’t worry Bora, you’re a filmmaker. Once things become film, it’s fiction. It’s not our family’s story. Don’t worry, I’m just supporting you with all my heart.”

It was so touching to see their reaction.

Do you see books as an inspiration for your work as a filmmaker?

I think so. I was like a bookworm since I was a teenager. Books always help me to experience other lives. As one person, you cannot be everyone. By reading a lot of books, you can indirectly experience other people’s lives. I think I see the world in a novelistic way. A lot of people commented that this film felt like a really good novel. It is cinema but at the same time it feels like a novel. I view it as a really good comment.

I think it’s a conversation between me and the composer. My composer Matija Strnisa, he worked so hard for this film and we had a really intense conversation and working together on Skype. He lives in Germany and I lived in the U.S. and Korea. 

We would talk a lot about when is the good time for music to (be used). We didn’t want the music to overwhelm or overpower the film. We wanted it to be more subtle and sometimes we tried not to put music when people expect music the most. There are some parts which are very dramatic and music can be helpful but we didn’t want to make the easy choice. 

Actually we talk a lot about when it’s a good time and not a good time (to use music). For example when Eunhee and Yongji have the most serious and deep conversation in the park, we’re actually considering whether we should put music or not and then we decided not to put music. That is when silence and the sound of air and wind is more important than overwhelming music. It’s the result of good conversation and collaboration between me and my composer Matija Strnisa.

Thank you for your time. 

Thank you very much. 

House of Hummingbird is now available in select virtual theaters via Kino Marquee.

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