The last year has been a blur of film festivals and award ceremonies for director and screenwriter Bora Kim. Her film, House of Hummingbird, which lyrically captures the complicated minutiae of a middle school student’s life, debuted at the Busan Film Festival in late 2018. Since then the film has garnered 50 film awards, both domestic and international, in festivals from Busan to Beijing to Berlin.
The indie film is nominated for even more awards, including six nominations at the upcoming Baeksang Arts Awards, the Korean equivalent of the Academy Awards. These nominations include best film, best director, best new director, best new actress, best supporting actress and best screenplay. Although Parasite is likely to claim a lion’s share of the Baeksang Awards, following its historic Academy Award wins, the number of Baeksang nominations that House of Humingbird earned is an honor for a first time filmmaker.
Kim describes the time spent promoting her film as hectic and happy, but winning so many awards very quickly began to feel unreal.
“When it’s over 20 awards you kind of feel like you’re numb,” said Kim. “You can’t really process what’s going on. Every time I went to a festival I got awards. It was kind of bizarre, in a good, not in a bad way, but very surreal. I was very happy, but after 20 awards or so I just wanted to let it go. I try not to focus on the awards too much because, I know one day I might make a bad film.”
More rewarding than the awards were the interactions she shared with the film’s viewers, including the letters she received after attending Q&A sessions. The film’s depiction of bias in a patriarchal society resonated with male and female viewers alike, but the emotional pain and suffering experienced by the film’s main character, Eun-hee, had special meaning to female viewers, who had similar experiences.
“I remember one letter I got from an audience member,” said Kim. “She said that she wanted to forget everything that happened to her, to just put up with it. She thought society wouldn’t change, but then after watching my film she told me that her trauma and pain now had a vocabulary, a language.”
The story is set in 1994. Eun-hee’s parents work so hard, they have little time for her. They focus all their hopes on her academically-gifted older brother, while downplaying her problems and potential. Eun-hee not only struggles with her own sense of identity, but is often the victim of her brother’s beatings, which her parents ignore. Eun-hee is awakening to ideas of love and friendship, which she can only compare to her parents’ strained marriage. Things begin to change for the better when a kind cram school teacher reaches out to her and provides perspective.
As a director, Kim accomplishes something special with the pacing of this story. Much the same way that it can take slow motion footage to actually see a hummingbird flap its wings, the unhurried dreamlike tempo of her film very effectively draws viewers into Eun-hee’s reality and that time in life when everything lasted forever.
Viewers had a positive response to the character’s complexity, said Kim. Many films portray middle school students, particularly girls, as innocently superficial. Young female characters are often portrayed as easygoing and not likely to torture themselves by thinking too much.
“They really liked that Eun-hee goes through a lot of dark and bright emotions at the same time.”
Kim, who has an MFA in film directing from Columbia University, said that Korean viewers also appreciated the fact that House of Hummingbird is an indie film.
“Koreans were so excited about seeing this kind of success for an indie film because there have not been any indie films like this for the past few years. The reaction from audiences, especially Korean audiences, was really passionate.”
Kim is currently working on a couple of treatments for future projects. Viewers so strongly identified with Eun-hee, played by Park Ji-hoo, that she is often asked whether the character will be featured in another project.
“I really like this question, whenever I get this question, because I feel like audiences really feel an affection for her and they really want to see her grow, to see how she will develop as an adult. Last year I always said, oh no, I don’t want to make any more Eun-hee stories, but now, who knows. Like the Before film trilogy, maybe 10 years later I might be able to make a version, where you see her in her 20s, then as she grows up in her 30s, or something like that. I’m just glad about this question because it means people really treat Eun-hee as if she is alive.”
While Parasite is in competition with House of Hummingbird for some Baeksang awards, Kim respects and praises director Bong Joon-ho for introducing more of the filmgoing world to Korean cinema.
“A new generation of filmmakers will see a positive effect from his films, for which I feel very grateful.”
House of Hummingbird will be available in the U.S. in August and is being distributed online for virtual screenings by Well Go USA Entertainment. It’s a very Korean story but it’s also a universal one.
“When we had the premiere at Tribeca, a lot of the audience stayed after the film’s screening and they shared their own stories,” said Kim. “Some people were crying. It was a very beautiful moment when strangers came to me and shared their own stories, trusting me as a person. That was a very beautiful encounter and that’s why I make films. I’m always interested in making a film which resonates with people’s hearts. At Tribeca I was really happy that American audiences really understood and related to this film and I hope that the online distribution can also bring some positive energy to American audiences.”
This story was originally published on forbes.com.