The House of Us (2019)

When making a coming-of-age film, a happy ending is a real no-no – how will you ever grow if everything always turns out perfect? In her second feature, “The House of Us” – coming after 2016’s “The World of Us” – Ga-eun Yoon again looks at a group of young girls during their summer vacation where relationships with parents are strained, and friends are there to pick up the pieces.

Hana (Na-yeon Kim) is something of the class nerd. Winning her Classmate of the Year award at school, she starts the summer holiday with something of a mooted reaction from her parents and older brother. Wanting to have a family get away to the beach, her father acts willing, but uses her mother’s being busy as an excuse; while her brother simply doesn’t want to hear. With arguments all around her, she tries to help out as much as possible at home to ease tensions – her summer homework project is to create a cookbook after all.

On one of her many helpful errands, she comes across sisters Yoo-mi (Shi-a Kim) and Yoo-jin (Ye-rim Joo) at the supermarket. Ever helpful, she stays with Yoo-jin when she loses her older sister and, being their elder, starts too cook for them as their parents live and work in another town; their uncle coming in the evenings to watch over them. And that is how their summer progresses.

But as summer draws to a close, Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin’s landlady keeps showing prospective tenants around. Unbeknownst to them, their parents are planning to make their move permanent. Meanwhile, for Hana, her mother seems all set to take her busy work life to Germany while her dad appears to be having an affair; a divorce imminent. Her parents wanting to give her a last wish before they split, they agree to her constant requests for a trip away. But with her new friends set to be moving away within a week, Hana is torn between her decaying family and her blossoming  friendships.

From the first shot, Yoon makes it clear that Hana is a marginalised voice in her home. Her face is prominent, while her family’s are not shown, but we only hear their voices, not hers. It’s outside of the house: at school, the library and Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin’s flat where Hana is truly heard. Hana’s parents and brother when shown are arguing, drunk or in a bad mood. Nobody particularly takes the time to sit down and listen to each other. Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin’s parents, and indeed supposed guardian uncle, are invisible throughout.

Mobile phones, however, feature widely. Indeed, this is the main mode of communication between parents and children. And this requires no face-to-face time. Hana, not only wanting to go on a family trip together also wants the family to sit around the dinner table together for evening meals. Something which the other three members of the family simply don’t want to have time for. Hana’s surrogate family, therefore, becomes Yoo-mi and Yoo-jin. Her preparing of meals for them each day gives her the familial interaction she craves; her recipes with them noted down in her book for her homework assignment. But the book is not just for school; rather a journal of the dream she has throughout the summer.

If the film itself was a recipe, however, you can certainly see numerous ingredients from previous films. The focus on the childhood perspective for adults reflects many a Kore-eda Hirokazu film, with the three leads providing natural interactions to a light and breezy soundtrack. The trio’s travelling on their own recalls “I Wish” in an attempt to save a failing family unit. A lack of communication across the dinner table also brings elements of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Tokyo Sonata” to mind.

But as the chef, Yoon cooks together the elements well enough and adds touches of her own flair to make this not just a paint-by-numbers coming-of-age piece. The situation is a natural one. While the parents are far from perfect in their relationships with the rest of the family, they are not completely unreasonable alcoholics/workaholics, but are just people that need to remember to have a day off. Chan, Hana’s older brother, is a typical teenage boy in all this, both annoyed and sympathetic to his sister and the situation.

Hana has a steely-eye by the film’s somewhat abrupt, but ultimately satisfying conclusion: a situation that isn’t fully resolved; and is neither happy nor sad, with Hana showing a hint of the matured Renko in Shinji Somai’s “Ohikkoshi”. Tomorrow probably won’t bring Hana what she wants, but she is now at least a little more prepared for the “real trip” that is to come. And having taken things into her own hands, she finally got what she wanted out of the summer.

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