Words by Guillermo De Querol
In 2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda became the first Japanese director in 21 years to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Ever since claiming the top prize, he’s become virtually a household name on the festival circuit and has continued to rise through the filmmaking ranks, further solidifying his global position as one of the foremost purveyors of humanist cinema. Widely known for his bittersweet domestic dramas, the writer-director has grappled with the meaning of family, both biological and found, over the course of his indelible career—broaching complex questions about social dynamics, economic disparity, and the ties that bind us with rare delicacy and insight.
His first Korean-language movie, Broker, which screened in competition at Cannes in May and opens in the U.S. on Dec. 26, is primed to become one of the biggest tearjerkers of 2022. Starring Song Kang-ho (Parasite), Bae Doona (The Host) and K-pop star IU, the film centers around a group of ‘baby brokers’ who earn a living on the adoption black market and take an impromptu road trip across Korea with a single mother to find a suitable couple that will adopt her baby. The movie takes a delightful new perspective on the auteur’s signature themes, delivering an achingly tender melodrama that will warm even the coldest heart.
Following its premiere at San Sebastián, I sat down with Kore-eda, aided by a translator, to discuss his Korean-language debut, his career-long interest in makeshift families, his favorite Asian filmmakers, the future of Japanese cinema, and his upcoming Netflix series.
Guillermo De Querol: At the moment, Korean entertainment is in hot demand globally. How did Broker come about, and what led you to shoot in that country?
Hirokazu Kore-eda: Well, the project was conceived many years ago, when two Korean actors I admire, Bae Doona and Song Kang-ho, approached me to make a film together. After we all agreed to do it, I developed the first script around six years ago in 2016, and came up with a working title for the film: Baby, Box, Broker. It took a lot of time for the project to finally come to fruition, but Song Kang-ho’s determination inspired me not to give up on it.
GDQ: Broker can be described as a road movie. Was that always the case, and would the film be any different at all had it been made in Japan?
HK: The first thing that occurred to me when I conceived this film was that it was going to be a story about a group of people who take a road trip together and become some sort of family. The idea of a mother who abandons her baby, and winds up sharing that trip with the baby brokers was also in the cards from the very beginning.
From that stage onwards, one of the first scenes I came up with was the one where Song Kang-ho shows up wearing a priest robe, picks up the baby from the box, smiles at her, and tells her she's going to be happy with him, only to sell her off the next day. There’s a strong presence of religion in Korean society, and this scene is closely related to that idea. So that particular scene might not have worked as well in a Japanese setting.
But it’s not that we were not able to do it in Japan and then we brought it to Korea. We always had the intention of doing it there from the beginning.
GDQ: I know you recently made a film in France with Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve (The Truth, 2019), but were you concerned some things would be lost in translation because of the language barrier between you and your Korean cast?
HK: Well, sometimes they might understand your words, but they don’t understand your feelings. [Laughs] I’m kidding, but when I was shooting The Truth with Ethan Hawke, I remember he told me that, when you’re shooting a film, sharing the same language is not as important as sharing the same vision of the kind of movie you want to make. As long as you can share that vision, he said, you won’t have a problem. And I think it’s true.
So this time, of course, even though I had a very good interpreter, I tried to communicate as well as I could the tone of the scene I was looking for, and the kind of feelings that I wanted to convey in the movie. So in that regard, I didn’t feel uneasy at all. I think I was very careful in my work and we all worked very hard to find common ground with each other.
GDQ: Chosen families have been a recurring motif throughout your work, most recently in Shoplifters and Broker. Can you tell us a bit about your interest in them, and if that has any personal sentiment?
HK: It’s very complicated for me to be asked something like that, so I’m going to reply, but probably half of my answer will be a lie. [Laughs].
To answer on a more serious note, I don’t think we are fully aware of the presence of family when everything is going well. But once we experience loss, then we try to find someone else to fill that gap and we truly become conscious of it; the meaning of family. For example, if I were to say, when your father passes away, you may try to fill in for him, but by doing so, you become very aware that you are no longer someone else’s son. If you have a child, and there is another son in the family, you're still very conscious of the fact you’re not one anymore, and you're trying to make up for it in one way or another.
In that sense, the pseudo-family we see in Broker was formed to forget. Although they can be called a family, very much a close-knit one, they have come together to fill the gaps in their lives, and essentially, make up for what is broken. So in that sense, they cannot exist without being very conscious of each other and what they’re missing. That’s what makes it interesting.
GDQ: Many of your films, such as Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm, portray the daily joys and bitter disappointments of fatherhood. By contrast, motherhood seems to be one of the core underpinnings in Broker. Was it important for you to explore parenthood and filial affection from a mother’s perspective?
HK: In 2013, I made the film Like Father, Like Son in part because, at the time, I didn't really feel I had become a father even though I had a child. During a festival interview for that film, I said that all women become mothers very naturally when they give birth, whereas fathers have to make an additional effort to really let their parenthood sink in.
Later on, I was approached by a female friend, who told me I was being very prejudiced, and that, in fact, a lot of women suffer because they become mothers yet don’t instantly develop that feeling of motherhood. I realized she was indeed right—that yes, I was looking at things from a very male-centric perspective, and that not all women are born with maternal instinct. So I decided to write a story about motherhood, and that’s how Shoplifters and Broker came to be, two movies I now view as siblings, both of which came after I reflected on my own way of thinking.
GDQ: Possibly my favorite small moment in Broker happens during the scene where policewoman Su-jin (Doona Bae), is talking to her phone in the car and ‘Wise Up’ by Aimee Mann randomly plays on the radio. This song is famously featured in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia—another film that deals with dysfunctional parenthood, trauma, and sorrow. I may be reading too much into it, but these parallels seem hardly coincidental. Was that a deliberate reference on your part?
HK: Yes, that’s right. It may not be clear during the scene, but the backstory is that the two were college classmates, and they went to see the film together back when they were a couple in college. Of course, there’s clearly some overlap between the themes of Magnolia and this film, so that was part of the reason why I chose the song. And also just because it’s one of my favorite songs.
GDQ: Was there any other film that inspired Broker thematically?
HK: In terms of what inspired the film as a whole, there aren’t many. If we’re looking for movies that may have served me as inspiration, you know, there’s one western by John Ford called Three Godfathers. The movie is about three bandits who pick up a little baby in the desert and decide to take care of him together. I think I rewatched that one.
GDQ: As a quick follow-up, you’ve cited Mikio Naruse and Federico Fellini as key touchstones growing up. But when I watch your films, I’m always reminded of two East Asian directors, Edward Yang and Lee Chang-dong—because they both imbue their quotidian stories with themes that speak to a broader reality. Do you see a bit of yourself in them, and do you seek inspiration in their work?
HK: Yes, I like all of those directors. [Laughs] I can’t think of any Asian director working today who doesn’t like Edward Yang and Lee Chang-dong.
GDQ: Following the global success of Shoplifters and Drive My Car, do you think it’s possible that Japanese cinema could become even more appealing to Western audiences?
HK: Of course, I hope that is the case, and I’m sure the next generation of talented writers is already emerging, like Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, Kōji Fukada, and Chie Hayakawa, who was introduced in this year’s Cannes Film Festival. They have been pretty successful so far, and I think that’s very positive. But if you ask me whether they will reach a wider audience around the world, I’m not that optimistic. I don't think it's going to be easy for the next generation to establish a global presence like in Korea for example, where various generations of artists are making their presence known all over the world.
This is because the Japanese film industry itself is very much a domestic one, making movies that are almost exclusively geared towards the local market. And I don’t feel there is much of a sense of crisis in this matter, or that producers feel threatened by this situation. To be honest, I’m not sure there’s a general policy towards spreading Japanese movies worldwide. If you haven’t noticed, every filmmaker is trying their best to make it on their own.
GDQ: To add to that point, I know you’ve teamed up with Netflix to develop a film and a series. So, do you think it’s a logical next step and inevitable for a filmmaker of your stature to transition to streaming services in order to continue to make ambitious projects like you’ve done for the past 25 years?
HK: [Laughs] Well, I am currently working on a drama series for Netflix that will be distributed next year, but I’m not doing it out of necessity. I have a background in television, and serial dramas are one of the things that I want to do, not because I have no choice. I think both ways of filmmaking can co-exist, and I’m trying to do both.
In the case of Japan, as I mentioned earlier, the film industry has been very rigid and slow to reform compared to Korea or other countries, and low wages and long working hours have become the norm. The people who work there are also in a higher position than those who work on Netflix dramas, so in that sense, I can say no.
With that being said, thanks to the arrival of international companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Netflix, we are finally beginning to realize how abnormal the conditions under which we were making our films were. The people working in Japan are also becoming more and more aware of the high quality of Netflix dramas. So I hope that the Japanese film industry will be able to take advantage of this wave of reform.
GDQ: In your 1998 film After Life, characters have to choose one memory to take into the afterlife. Have you given it any more thought in the 20 years since you made the film, and if given the chance, do you know which memory you’d hold on to?
HK: Back when I made that film, everybody asked me a similar question, and I always used to answer that I would like to remain in that film set working as a staff member without having to choose a memory, because I wanted to continue to make more movies. I think I’d give you the same answer today. I still have many things to do, and I want to make some more movies, so I can not choose a memory just yet.
After having its U.S. premiere in Telluride Film Festival, NEON will open Broker in theaters on December 26.
Published on October 25, 2022
Words by Guillermo De Querol
Guillermo is a freelance entertainment writer based in Madrid, Spain. His writing and festival coverage has been published across various outlets, including Little White Lies, Taste of Cinema, Film Cred, and Certified Forgotten. When he’s not watching or writing about films, he’s probably talking about them on Letterboxd or Twitter. Guillermo hopes to continue to provide valuable features at JoySauce.