They say history doesn't repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. This year has seen memorials marking the fifth anniversary of the sinking of the MV Sewol, a South Korean passenger ferry, in which 304 people drowned. The tragedy came as the nation was still commemorating another disaster occurring two decades earlier: the 1994 Seongsu Bridge disaster, when the Han River crossing in Seoul collapsed, killing 32. House of Hummingbird, the debut feature by South Korean filmmaker Bora Kim, is set against that national catastrophe; at the same time, she describes it as being "drawn from my personal memories of my adolescence."
The bridge collapse wasn't some distant tragedy, but one that could have hit even closer to home than it did. Kim was a schoolgirl in Seoul when it happened, and her older sister would cross that bridge every day on the way to class. "She was able to save her life because she was late on the day. I remember the dinner that day, that our family was very relieved but also very sad because of the deaths of a lot of girls from her high school. My sister was alive, but we couldn't say we were happy-happy."
However, for a story that is so definitively about a specific place and time in Korean history, the film didn't start to take form until Kim moved to the U.S. in 2007 to attend New York's Columbia University. It was her first time living outside of Korea and speaking a foreign language, while at the same time she was working on her MFA. That's when she started having a recurring dream. "I was a graduate student, but I had to go to middle school for three years. It felt like a nightmare." She realized that something was sparking in her about her teen years, and she started writing. "It wasn't a screenplay format in the beginning. It was more just me writing down a bunch of notes and memories." However, by the time she finished an actual draft in 2013, it had moved away from that memoir-like form and become what she calls "personal and fictional, both."
Even with the finished script, she still had to find the right performer to play the central character of middle-schooler Eun-hee, and so began a three-year, on-and-off audition process until she found Park Ji-hu. "I was thinking, 'Who is she? How is she reading lines in the way that I meant?' Because not all teenage actors can understand subtext, but she did." To give the young actor an idea about South Korea in 1994, Kim and her team prepared a file about the period: However, even though the pivotal bridge collapse happened before she was born, Park still knew about it because of the anniversary and its echoes in the Sewol tragedy. Kim said, "My country compared that ferry disaster to the bridge collapse because they were very similar to each other."
Not all anniversaries are tragic: This year marks a century of Korean cinema, a hundred years since the first narrative feature (Loyal Revenge) and first documentary (Scenes of Kyongsong City) were made and released. However, Kim sees South Korean cinema evolving and becoming a more welcoming place for women directors. She noted that at last year's Busan International Film Festival (at which House of Hummingbird won both the prestigious NETPAC Award and the KNN Audience Award), roughly half the titles screened were by female filmmakers. She said, "I'm very happy that I'm showing my film in a year when the industry has started to pay more attention to women's film."
Austin Chronicle: Some period films feel like they use the past as set dressing, but House of Hummingbird is very specifically tied to moments in Korean history – not just the bridge collapse, but the funeral of Kim Il-sung. Was there ever a point while you were developing the story when it was set now, or was it always set in 1994?
Bora Kim: A lot of people on the script stage said, "You shouldn't make a period piece because you don't have much budget. You really need to make a current piece so you can save some budget." That advice sounded practical, but I'm glad I didn't take it, because it had to be a period piece because I wanted to depict Korean society in the Nineties. That was the period when my country was trying so hard to be recognized by the world, and to [become] a developed country from an underdeveloped state. That's why they tried to build everything so fast, and that's why the bridge collapsed. We didn't care about safety. We just cared about development.
The Seongsu Bridge was a wake-up call to South Korea about what it means to be a human being, and why we have to care about more than just building new things. So in many ways, this film is about the coming of age of this character, Eun-hee, but also about my country's symbolic coming of age, of this country trying to be better. So I just wanted to parallel these two elements during this particular year.
I wanted to depict my middle school experience, so it had to be the Nineties. I started thinking, "OK, which year would be the best?" and the first time I thought about it, it had to be the year of the Seongsu collapse because that year was insane. It shook my life, and everyone's life in my country and my society.
AC: When you started writing the script, did you talk to you sister about how she felt about it, because this is part of your shared family history?
BK: I talked to my sister a lot about everything – about the bridge collapse, about the casting process, about the script, and all that. She's been supportive throughout the whole process, and especially about the bridge collapse, she was saying whole details of what happened on the morning. She didn't know that the bridge had collapsed, so she just thought there was some accident on the bridge, and that's why they couldn't get in. But the bridge had collapsed into two pieces, so she had to take public transport and take a detour on the subway to get to school, but she didn't know what was going on.
As soon as she arrived, all of her friends cried, going, "We thought you died." The whole school was in chaos, and her classmates told her, "You were meant to be alive. We're so glad that you were late." She said that very emotionally, because that sentence has a lot of context.
AC: One of the core parts of being a teenager is how it changes the way we see tragedy. When you're a child, bad things happen and you can turn to an adult. When you're a teenager, tragedy strikes and you have to accept that this is just how life is. That makes the film very emotionally open-ended.
BK: From the very beginning, I thought about the ending. Things die, and new things come, [and] you have this hope that Eun-hee will live her life in a different way.
Austin Asian American Film Festival presents House of Hummingbird Thursday, June 13, 7:30pm @AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35 #3100. Tickets and info at www.aaafilmfest.org.
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