House of Hummingbird (2018) depicts an anxious South Korea, which in 1994 is racing towards a fast development, a neoliberalist vice of globalization and quantitative, rather than qualitative, improvement. In this race, just like in any other, losses are presented. Failures and consequences are well visualized by the collapse of the Seongsu Bridge. Bora Kim (director) herself, explained in an interview with Asian Movie Pulse that ‘Back then, [her] country was growing, and it was trying really hard to be recognized as a developed country. That’s why [they] built many things very fast without serious security measures and controls, which is also why the Seongsu Bridge collapsed.’.
In a similar way, the shortcomings of the country’s efforts to move towards a neoliberalist model, are exposed by the character of 14-year-old Eun-hee, played by Park Ji-hoo, who is rebelling quietly with a hard-bitten attitude of unwillingness. This attitude is perceived by her parents as laziness. Her teachers think it’s a lack of interest, leading to delinquency. But could it be that Eun-hee is instead plotting against the systemic pressure of constant productivity?
Playing karaoke, sketching cartoons… these activities correspond to Eun-hee’s teenagehood, and they are deeply frowned upon by (most of) her tutors because they do not ‘amount to anything’. More generally speaking, any activity other than studying or working is classified by society as unproductive, and hence, aimless. Eun-hee is unwilling to progress in the way and direction in which she is told to, perhaps because of what the promise of progress has to offer. ‘Progress’ in this context, means studying hard enough during highschool, to be able to study even harder in university, in order to later get a job which is neither fulfilling nor enjoyable, but pays the bills. While our main character’s father tries to portray himself as a successful businessman, it is inevitable to note his frustration. Progress, as he defines, has not led him to any satisfaction, and Eun-hee is well aware of this.
House of Hummingbird can be analysed parallel to the work developed on Byung-Chul Han’s ‘Burnout Society’. In his text, Byung-Chul Han, a South Korean cultural theorist, describes individuals as achievement-subjects, which proposes the idea that, in today’s ‘modern’ society, ‘individuals’ are prone to auto-exploitation in order to maximize efficiency as measured by capital. Of course, this comes with various psychological consequences, which can be said to be illustrated by Bora Kim; Eun-hee’s mother is fatigued, while her father is as strict as he is frustrated. Both states of being depict the classical symptoms of what Han classifies as belonging to the ‘Burnout Society’ we live in today.
Expanding on Han’s proposed way of describing society, what characterizes ‘modern’ subjects is their exhaustion and consequent depression, after they voluntarily succumb to the endless race of performance.
Now, the idea that Eun-hee is an anti-capitalist militant might be a bit of a stretch. But I deem it interesting that Bora Kim and Byung-Chul Han share a critical outlook on today’s South Korean society. For example, one scene in House of Hummingbird shows one of Eun-hee’s teachers ranting ‘Repeat after me: Instead of karaoke, I will go to Seoul National University!’. If this scene were to be interpreted according to Han’s analysis, then a collateral message that could be read. Namely, that if Eun-hee does not get admitted into Seoul National University, this failure will be attributed to her personal shortcomings. Because there is this idea that society is based on meritocratic values, any failure of achieving a goal ultimately corresponds to the failure of the individual. There lies a deceptive idea of freedom within the ill-intentioned ‘Yes, you can!’…
House of Hummingbird illustrates a painful yet tender coming-of-age story. Accompanied by Han’s theory, it becomes a highly critical visualization of South Korea’s modernized society. Seen from this perspective, one can even engage with the psychological aspect of the characters in the film. The film includes Eun-hee’s complexities in such a sensible way, that several layers of analysis can be driven from it. This is what I like about movies. I’m happy to be back at the cinema.
Written by Martine Wu