The legendary Japanese director sits down with Nick Chen to discuss his new film Broker and his idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking
Hirokazu Kore-eda is a Japanese director who, in 17 features, has won the Palme d’Or and Jury Prize at Cannes, been nominated for an Oscar, and earned a reputation as one of today’s greatest living filmmakers. Until 2019’s France-set The Truth, all of Kore-eda’s movies (and TV shows) took place in Japan, often critiquing his home country’s politics, conventions and inequality. For his latest release, Broker, the 60-year-old auteur is working abroad again, this time in South Korea with cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (Parasite, Burning) and actors such as Bae Doona (The Host, Take Care of My Cat), Song Kang-ho (Parasite, Memories of Murder), and K-Pop star Lee Ji-eun (aka IU).
Nevertheless, Kore-eda is operating in a familiar register, once again evoking the quiet heartbreak of Still Walking, Our Little Sister, and After the Storm. Written by Kore-eda alongside the development of Shoplifters, Broker is also a sensitive crime-drama about found families who break both the law and societal norms. The inspiration – an outline was written in 2016, titled Cradle – was discovering the growing trend for “baby boxes” in Korea. A concept dating back to the Middle Ages, a baby box offers a safe space for a parent to anonymously abandon a child.
As usual with Kore-eda, Broker doesn’t offer obvious villains. Ha Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) may occasionally steal children from a baby box, delete the CCTV footage, and make a profit on the black market, but they do so – well, they claim – to find suitable parents who offer more care than an orphanage. Reasoning that if the father or mother doesn’t leave contact details it almost certainly means they won’t return, the duo attempt to sell a baby left in the box by So-young (Lee Ji-eun). However, when So-young comes back and learns of their illegal business, the trio embark on a road trip in search of a wealthy, worthy buyer. Hot on their trail are two detectives, Soo-jin (Bae Doona) and Lee (Lee Joo-young), whose personal lives intertwine with their targets in unexpected, Kore-eda-esque ways.
After Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or in 2018, it made headlines that Japan’s Prime Minister didn’t congratulate Kore-eda on a film highlighting local issues regarding poverty. Over Zoom in January, I ask the director if being an outsider to Korea is an advantage or disadvantage when it comes to offering social commentary. “I don’t think an outsider couldn’t depict something critically about a certain country,” Kore-eda counters, via an interpreter, while in Copenhagen. “Even in Japan, I shoot films from an outsider’s view.”
Early in his career, Kore-eda focused on non-fiction features and shorts, a journalistic muscle he’s still utilising. “If you do a film like Broker, you have to do thorough research and in-depth interviews. To really flesh out a character, you have to have a very clear skeleton beforehand. These are things I cultivated by working on documentaries.”
Another Kore-eda trademark is the role of food. (His new, barely advertised Netflix series, The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House, released in January, depicts a young, female chef.) Bonds are formed by non-biological families over the dinner table. On stakeouts in the car, the detectives slurp instant noodles while mulling existential quandaries. “Because Bae Doona played an air doll the last time I worked with her, she couldn’t eat throughout that filming period,” Kore-eda says. “I decided I would let her eat properly in our next film.”
Kore-eda is referring to the 2014 sex-comedy Air Doll, starring Bae in a role that’s been reversed, not just with junk food, for Broker. Whereas Shoplifters centred upon the criminal ensemble, Broker devotes lengthy sections to Soo-jin’s detective arc, enough that you wonder if Bae should have her own film. “Shoplifters and Broker came about because I wanted to create films depicting maternal instincts and mothers,” Kore-eda explains. “In Shoplifters, the detectives only appear to break down the family unit. But in Broker, I wanted Bae Doona to be a detective and a protagonist, in the sense that she changes the most within the film.
“She goes from somebody who’s very against baby adoption and the mother, and does a 180-degree turn the other way. She’s holding the vertical thread of the film. I wanted to show there’s humanity and a story behind that detective.”
As for casting Lee Ji-eun as So-young, a vulnerable woman who’s very unlike a K-Pop star, Kore-eda refers to the singer-turned-actor’s turn in the TV series My Mister. “Her acting in My Mister was superb in terms of how sensitive it was, and how she showed emotions in very subtle, quite restrictive conditions,” Kore-eda says. “When I saw that, I was like, ‘I want the mother to be her.’”
While Broker continues Kore-eda’s reputation as a director of bittersweet family-dramas, he’s also responsible for Hana (a 1702-set samurai story), The Third Murder (a courtroom mystery), and August Without Him (a doc about Japan’s first openly gay AIDS sufferer). “Wherever I go, I’m regarded as the filmmaker that depicts families,” he says. “But I really don’t see myself that way. I’m not limited to those topics. I like doing films like The Third Murder and Air Doll as well.”
Another one could be coming soon. Kore-eda’s Monster has a Japanese release date of June 2, 2023, meaning it’ll almost certainly premiere at Cannes. All he’ll tell me, though, is that it’s unlike any of his previous work. One titbit he can offer is that there might be an English-language remake of Shoplifters – he’s not directly involved, but producers have received offers. I ask if he can, for fun, name who he’d like to helm a Shoplifters remake. “Hmmm. To direct Shoplifters?” He pauses for 30 seconds. “Hold on.” He pauses for another 20 seconds. “Sean Baker. I do like him.”
If Monster does premiere at Cannes, it’ll be 12 months after Broker competed for the Palme d’Or at last year’s festival, earning the best actor prize for Song Kang-ho. While critics were mostly positive, some journalists dismissed Broker as anti-abortion and conservative: a repeated line is “thank you for being born”; So-young is repeatedly chastised for giving up her biological child. Then again, Kore-eda’s films are full of empathy for their wide-ranging characters, allowing viewers to pick and choose their conclusions.
“When it comes to interpretations, I believe it’s not something I should be aware of,” Kore-eda says. “And that’s the danger as a filmmaker. It’s a threat to my creativity if I become too conscious of it. When the film screened at Cannes, it was around the time the US abortion rights verdict came out. A few people wrote that the film is anti-abortion. But if you look at it carefully, it doesn’t hold such messages. I really wanted to showcase how to protect and celebrate the lives that have come into this world. It wasn’t about abortion at all.
“But I’m not anxious about what could be read into the film, because it’s not something I can control. And to be honest, I don’t always have the answer of what I would like the audience to feel. So, going forward, I won’t hold myself back when creating films.”
Broker opens in UK & Irish cinemas on February 24. For more information head here.