There is nothing better than an unexpectedly great film that makes you experience the entire palette of human emotions – a film that makes you reminisce, steep yourself in its characters and see the world through their eyes, giving you an experience that might end up opening your own eyes a bit further. A film that finds ways to mend your heart, but also breaks it. That kind of film is a rare find, but that is exactly what the charming, emotional debut feature House of Hummingbird (벌새, Beolsae), both written and directed by Kim Bora, turned out to be – probably the most pleasant surprise of this year’s New Currents section at the 23rd Busan International Film Festival.
And so, in the busy noise of Busan Film Centre, right in the heart of Cinemountain, we caught up with Kim Bora whose schedule was full to the brim given the attention her film was generating, catching both the eye of the critics and hearts of the audience – it is no wonder the film went on to win the coveted KNN Audience Award and also the NETPAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) Award. As it turns out, talking to Kim Bora is much like experiencing her work – it makes you think, it puts things in perspective and it brings out a colourful array of emotions.
Let’s start at the beginning. This is your debut feature and you got your MFA at Columbia University in USA – how did you get into filmmaking in the first place?
I did my BA in Korea, and then I did my Master’s in the USA. My initial dream was to be a cartoonist, like the character Eunhee. But somehow, I gravitated towards film as a major. Then I decided to study abroad to learn English so that I can communicate with more people and gain an international perspective. I also wanted to broaden my filmmaking ability in another country because all Korean film schools teach filmmaking in a similar way, and I didn’t want to get stuck in the proverbial box.
And then you connected with an international team to make this movie. How did that happen? Where did you meet?
Zoe – my producer – already produced my short movie, The Recorder Exam, which was kind of the short version of this film. She then introduced Matija to me, whom she met at Berlinale Campus, and we had a really good working chemistry. But all other crew members on the set were 100% Korean, so only the co-producer, composer, and a few post-production people are from other countries.
Speaking of the team, what was the casting process like for the character of Eun-hee? Park Ji-hu did a great job!
From 2014 to 2017, I periodically met child actresses to cast Eun-hee. During that time, I felt like I met almost all the child actresses of that age. Ultimately, Park Ji-hu got selected. I’m very happy that I was able to find her through that hard, long process.
What ultimately made her the best choice?
She was the only one who read my script in the same way I wrote it. In a way, I was shocked, I got goosebumps. I felt really touched when she read my script, but I didn’t want to show my excitement from the start. (Laughs)
I was ultimately drawn to Ji-hu from a moment that happened after her audition. When I said bye to Ji-hu, she paused a bit before leaving. She turned around and said, “director, I’m bolmae. I’m willing to have more auditions for the role. Please call me back.” Bolmae is a Korean term that translates to someone becoming more charming the more we see and interact with them, and it’s typically not a trait that someone ascribes to themselves. I was so surprised by her confidence. I like when an actor is very forward and has a strong desire for the role. She did a great job because she had a strong will to be the character.
About the rest of the cast – Kim Saebyuk is a well-known name of independent cinema. How did she get involved in the project?
We sent her the script and she liked it. I’m really happy she decided to work on the project, because the film is so much better because she was cast as Kim Youngji.
You both wrote and directed House of Hummingbird. Where did the inspiration come from – and why set it in 1994?
Many people assume that the story is a little bit autobiographical – and it’s true. In 1994, I was in middle school – it was then that the accident happened. Actually, my sister went to that school, and many of the girls died, and she survived because she was late, and… although she lived, many of her friends died and my sister was in a lot of pain. And I remember that day, and… Sorry.
It’s ok… Take your time.
Just thinking about losing my sister… I didn’t lose her, but even just thinking about it makes me really sad. From these feelings, somehow, I got strongly motivated to write the script. I don’t know why it still makes me cry even just thinking about it… None of my family members died, but everyone felt sad, I still feel sad for the girls who died. Actually, at the end of the school year, the girls who died were also featured in the school yearbook, but with the black ribbon mark. Looking at those photos, of the girls I never really met, I strangely felt like I knew them and I felt really sad, so… Even though my sister survived, it felt like their deaths were a shared trauma that we experienced as a community.
Do you feel the tragic Seongsu Bridge collapse was the key element of the story? Did you build the story so it would lead to the event, or did you incorporate it as you were writing the screenplay?
Yes, the bridge collapse was always the key element from the start, but I wasn’t clear about why I wanted to put it in the background, except for the fact that I experienced that in my life. The more I wrote the script, the more I realized that it was very much related to Eun-hee’s struggle and feeling of separation. As a writer, you don’t know everything that you write from the very beginning. The process of writing is realizing why you chose the elements in the beginning and seeing the deep meaning of it.
At first, the script was a bit… neither here not there. There were a bunch of scenes, a bunch of memories, and I tried to collect them and give them structure – I made certain memories bigger while I made others smaller; the process of collecting and organizing all memories, making them into a fictional story, took 5 years. Some people suggested that the bridge collapse should be put in the beginning, and some suggested the middle of the story, but I felt it belonged to the third act of the film. It was a part of the story from the beginning, but its place in the story arc was decided in the final stage of production.
What makes this story very special is Eunhee’s inner search for love. It was interesting – and in a way, brave, that you decided to make Eunhee a character that is not gender biased when it comes to love. Do you feel that there was a special message that you wanted to send to the audience with that?
For me, it was very natural, because I’m bisexual as well. So there was no specific reason, I just wrote it the way I saw it. But, as a character, Eun-hee being bisexual has a lot to do with how she views the world. She’s very open and is not the stereotypical heterosexual Korean woman, and I set Eunhee’s character that way to show her complex layers.
Eunhee isn’t judgmental. In a similar way her teacher Youngji isn’t either. I actually set Youngji’s character as a model for Eunhee’s future – so Eunhee will love others without judging. I purposely avoided any dramatic reason about her being bisexual. For me, there was no need. Some people think that this is just a love interest in middle school. That it’s a stage and it will pass. But no, it won’t. The girls like each other, like the way Jiwan likes Eunhee.
To be honest, this is a huge step forward for Korean film industry. Still, getting the financing for this film, given the topic, must have been tough.
It took a long time to get all of the funding. I got the funding from Korean Film Council, Seoul Film Commision, Seongnam Cultural Foundation, and a little bit of funding from Seoul International Women’s Film Festival as a prize for a pitch. I got a partial grant from Sundance Film Institute, and the post-production support came from Asian Cinema Fund. It took a long time, almost 4 years, to get all of the funds.
Another question about the film – its title, actually: House of Hummingbird. Is the English title the direct translation from Korean?
No – the direct translation would be just “Hummingbird”.
Usually, films with titles that are not very ordinary have some sort of explanation of the title in the film itself, but your film had none. It’s not that the metaphor behind it is not clear, but still – not explaining it is an interesting choice.
Yeah… I didn’t explain it on purpose, and I think I succeeded since everyone is asking about the meaning of the title. (Laughs) I wish the audience would just search for the meaning of the word “Hummingbird” after they watch the film, so that would help them remember. The pronunciation of the word is very beautiful in Korean and very special, and even if you don’t know the meaning, it is a very musical word. But I hope people will understand the connection once they understand the meaning of the word.
Facing forward, what kind of stories do you feel you want to tell next?
My producer Zoe and I have been talking about making a sci-fi film, from a female perspective. I want to make a film that deals with a human emotional journey. While I was making House of Hummingbird, I went through depression and a lot of emotional turmoil. Because of the theme… I was almost doing self-therapy with the film, and I had a tough time, but I realized that during that period, I grew a lot. It was very interesting, depicting the fundamental human emotions, the turmoils, the depression and the joy, this very complex, but huge, universal human emotional map. I want to make that kind of map but set in a sci-fi film. I see it as a woman’s journey, going through the entire emotional arc. I haven’t really written it yet in full, but it’s this idea that I’m working on; depicting an emotional journey through a very visual story.
Being a female director in Korea – to begin with, there aren’t many, and it seems like it’s really hard to break into the core of the mainstream industry as a female film director. Are you more interested in working in independent cinema, or would you be interested in breaking into mainstream, like Yim Soon-rye?
For the second feature, it would be good to make a big film, so that I can make the third or fourth film with more freedom. Other male film directors in Korea, when they make a big, successful film, they can then make what they want freely, and I want to work in that direction. Also, I want to break the taboo that female directors cannot make successful box office films. I want to broaden my filmmaking by expanding the boundaries that are given to female directors. Not just for me, but for other female directors as well.
Also, making this film… it was very challenging for me, because I had no proper female role model. The reason it took almost 7 years to make this film was because I had a lot of anxiety about making – about directing this film. Other, male directors have so many role models, but we don’t have a lot. I didn’t have many female director friends, there was only one such person in my close circle so I really want that – if I ever make a second film, I hope my career inspires someone else to build their own career.
We want to thank Kim Bora for taking the time to talk to us!
Written and interviewed by Sanja Struna
Cover photo © You-Xue Lin
Other photos © Epiphany, Mass Ornament Films