Ever since I watched Yi-Yi (Taiwan/Japan, 2000) by Edward Yang as a teenager, I've been hooked on East Asian cinema. Under that cinematic umbrella, I have found myself drawn to stories that are wholly different from my Asian American male, heterosexual experience.
Two films that exhibit this are Blue Gate Crossing (Taiwan, 2002) and the more recent House of Hummingbird (South Korea, 2018). In this article I will share my review of each film and what connected me deeply to both of them.
Stills from Blue Gate Crossing
Blue Gate Crossing (Chinese: 藍色大門, pinyin: lánsè dà mén) made me fall in love again. This 2002 Taiwanese film directed by Yee Chin-yen (易智言) stars newcomers Gwei Lun-mei (桂綸鎂) and Chen Bolin (陳柏霖) in their debut film roles. The two actors would go on to have successful acting careers going back and forth between Taiwan and China. There is a certain innocence and rawness to these two young actors performances that is just so fun to watch. The film went on to be critically well received and premiered at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.
I first watched this film in Taiwan and it captivated me with its nostalgia for a past that I did not have. The environment and the film mingled together in my mind as if posing a hypothetical past where instead of growing up in the U.S. I grew up and went to high school in Taiwan. At the time I was just out of college and wanted to live abroad. Temporally and geographically, high school was growing further away. This film transported me back to that time, with it’s awkwardness, it’s hopefulness.
I think that’s the main draw of the coming of age genre, it’s longing for the past. But it’s particularly interesting for me to see it through the female protagonist lens. This may stem from a curiosity to understand the opposite sex and it's as if through films we can get a glimpse into what it looks like from the opposite shore. What’s interesting about this film is that through the two main characters, we're able to go back and forth in perspective from both sexes, but with an emphasis on the female lead's viewpoint.
The film follows a young high school girl Meng Kerou (Gwei) who is questioning the potential romantic feelings she has for her close female friend Yuezhen (actress Yolin Liang), but is thrown a curveball when she's asked to help her friend seek out the affections of one of the school's swimmers, Zhang Shihao (Chen). This curveball gets even curvier as Shihao begins to develop feelings for Kerou. The familiar Cyrano tale takes on a life of its own in Blue Gate Crossing that is new and refreshing.
Between Kerou and Shihao's characters grows an infectious chemistry that calls to mind old high school crushes that teeter on the edge of romance and friendship. The film gives space and holds the frame on Kerou in a way that lets us live in her indecision. The male lead gives off such a powerful masculine and fun energy, we want him to find love but it seems he keeps butting his head against the wrong door.
One week, to practice my Mandarin, I watched this film three times: 1) With English subtitles, 2) With Chinese subtitles, 3) No subtitles...and I still wasn’t bored by it.
That first time watching it though, with the silent stares and that incredible long take in the dark auditorium with chairs, is like falling in love for the first time. It made me long for that youthful romance that seems harder to find as I grow older. But this film reminds us that we all still carry that need for connection, 1 year, 3 years...and onwards.
Stills from House of Hummingbird.
I watched House of Hummingbird (Korean: 벌새, beolsae) when it first came to the U.S. in 2019 as part of the Hollywood Foreign Press Foreign Language Film Series, it eventually was released here in June 2020. I didn’t know what to expect, I just knew that it was a Korean film. I was blown away. I've been hesitant about writing about this film until now because I wasn’t sure if I could do it justice.
The film centers on a young middle school girl Eunhee, played by the amazing Park Ji-Hoo, who is growing up in Seoul in the early 1990s in less than ideal circumstances: parents that fight, abusive brother, fickle friends...Even in this environment, director Bora Kim is able to capture moments of beauty in between the episodes of heavy tension.
Eunhee, who carries such an aura of melancholy and loneliness, finds an unlikely mentor in her Chinese writing tutor (actress Kim Sae-byuk) and their relationship, throughout all of the pain she faces in the film, shines forth with such warmth that it makes the suffering she faces bearable. The tutor, a 30-something unmarried woman, carries a deep pain about her that the lead character cannot help but connect with.
Their connection becomes even more bittersweet towards the end of the film against the backdrop of a rapidly changing South Korea that faces a national tragedy. Eunhee’s background is wholly different from my own, but director Kim is able to capture such specific feelings of alienation and loss that I’m incapable of escaping its gravity. Some moments felt longer than needed, but I may need another viewing to appreciate the slow pacing. If anything, the pacing of the film made me feel more so that I was living it than watching it.
Actress Park Ji-Hoo is astounding and it makes the years they spent trying to cast the lead all worth it. The teacher is also an incredible force that says so much with such few lines of dialogue. I absolutely love the student-teacher bond in the film and reminds me just how important teachers can be in our lives. Like doctors who help save the physical body, teachers can help save the emotional lives of their students.
The film is also a testament to why there should be more female directors telling female stories. There’s an interiority and authenticity that is inescapable with each passing frame. Director Kim shares (interview linked above), "In the very beginning, I felt like this film was me[...] But at the Busan premiere, I really felt like this was about collective trauma that we have from the 90s as an underdeveloped country, as a person that lived through that era, as a woman who was living in that era of a male-dominated society."
Many of us know of Park Chan-wook and everyone knows Bong Joon-Ho now, but Korean female filmmakers like Bora Kim and her gem of a film deserve more widespread recognition as well. Hopefully films like House of Hummingbird will help inspire more female directors in South Korea and abroad to tell their stories.
Still from Blue Gate Crossing
Still from House of Hummingbird
Both Blue Gate Crossing and House of Hummingbird share a similar premise: a coming of age story told through the perspective of a young girl who is learning how to navigate the world and her sexuality. However, the films then traverse this narrative space on different paths: Blue Gate Crossing leans into the love triangle dynamic whereas House of Hummingbird chooses a more atmospheric, multi-layered approach. Both are incredibly enjoyable films, with the former being a little bit more emotionally accessible, but the latter being well worth the experience.