21 Feb 23
The Japanese master behind Like Father, Like Son and Shoplifters is back with Broker, a different kind of family drama. Here, he talks dinner with Bong Joon-ho, learning from his actors and his favourite cinema-going experiences...
Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to familiar themes but in a decidedly unfamiliar setting in his Korean- language debut, Broker. For decades, Kore-eda has examined the Japanese family in delicate and devastating dramas ranging from Nobody Knows to Still Walking, and has often homed in on peculiar, unconventional conceits that shake the foundations of the status quo. Like Father, Like Son (a Cannes Jury Prize winner in 2013) followed the tangled story of two families from different social classes who discover their sons were accidentally switched at birth, while 2018's Shoplifters, which centred on a found family living in poverty on the fringes of Tokyo society, netted Kore-eda the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and was his biggest hit to date back home. Now, he has ventured to Korea for a story that starts with a child abandoned at a church-affiliated "baby box", and develops into a thoughtful, moving character drama that, once again, questions preconceived notions of what makes a family unit.
Koreeda-san, thank you for speaking with us. Broker sees you travel to Korea to tackle this intriguing concept of "baby boxes". Which aspect of the film came to you first, the topic or the Korean setting?
It's a bit of both, really. When I was preparing for Like Father, Like Son, I learned that there is one baby box in Japan, in Kumamoto.And I thought that I would like to make a film on this subject some day. And then that happened to overlap with the [Korean] actor Song Kang-ho (Snowpiercer, Parasite) saying that he would like to work with me. It also happened that although there was only one baby box in Japan, I discovered that there were three in Korea, and 10 times more babies were being abandoned there than there were in Japan. So, I thought, if I'm going to make a film about this, Korea is probably a better place to make it.
In a similar way to Like Father, Like Son, this film draws from themes that could be ripped right out of the newspaper headlines. Once you had that kernel of an idea, how did it develop into a feature?
The first idea that I had was for the start of the film. I had this image of Song Kang-ho dressed as a priest, picking up a baby from the baby box, smiling in this way that you don't really know if it's a nice smile or an evil smile, and saying to this baby, "Let's be happy together" – and then the next day going off and selling the baby.
That was the first image that came into my mind. Then I had the idea that the mother who had abandoned the child would come back. And then I thought of the idea that you would have the mother who abandoned the child, and the man who was trying to sell the child, going on the journey together and becoming a pseudo-family. It was a very simple narrative initially.
Many of your films centre on themes of family, particularly what you call "pseudo-families", like the group of individuals drawn together by poverty and neglect in Shoplifters. Why are you so interested in exploring these films in your work?
It's not like I think about why I chose a theme when I'm making a film. So, I always find it difficult when someone asks me why I'm interested in these kinds of themes.
Whenever I come up with an answer, I'm never quite convinced by the answer myself, but maybe it's something along the lines of, both in Japan and Korea, there's a very set idea of what a family consists of, and blood ties are very strong. So maybe I want to show different groups of people and just say, "Well, couldn't we maybe think of this as a family unit as well?"
You're working with Song Kang-ho on this film. Many film fans in the UK were introduced to his work via Parasite, but he has had such a long, rich and varied career. How were you introduced to his work and what was it that impressed you about him as an actor?
What I find appealing about Song Kang-ho is that he has this ability to express two sides, light and dark, lightness and heaviness, good and evil.
He's the opposite of monotone, and that's what I find most attractive about him. In terms of which specific films, I would have to say Bong Joon-ho's Memories Of Murder and Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine.
What were the challenges of making your first film both in Korea and in the Korean language?
Making a film in any country has its difficulties. So, in that sense, it wasn't difficult because I was making it in Korea, but of course, it's a different country with a different language, different culture, so I'd be lying if I said there were no obstacles to overcome.
A couple of weeks before starting, Bong Joon-ho invited me for dinner and he said, "I'm sure you're feeling a bit nervous, but don't worry because once you start filming, Song Kang-ho will dictate the pace. Just leave it to him." It turned out he was right. Song Kang-ho really did set the tone and he was the team leader and, thanks to him, it went very smoothly.
How does that work when you are working in a different language? It must be difficult.
Obviously, I didn't understand what the actors were saying, so I had to make decisions based on something other than the meaning of the lines – the rhythm of the conversations or something else.
I'd learned about the importance of that when I was making The Truth in France, and Song Kang-ho made up for the bits I was missing. He would tell me how he had said his lines in a scene, the nuance in each take. After we'd finished filming, he would run me through everything. And when I had done my editing overnight, the next day he would come into the cutting room and would diligently watch what I'd put together. He was very detailed and accurate in his feedback to me, all the way through.
Your films are very powerful when watched with an audience. What are your strongest memories of seeing films in a cinema?
One memory would be of going to the cinema club near my university when I was a student and watching a double bill of Federico Fellini's La Strada and Nights Of Cabiria. Another would be of going to the Namikiza cinema in Ginza, which was in a basement. It was a dark, dirty cinema and they were showing Japanese films. That was what made me think Japanese films are interesting too.
What really got me hooked was seeing a double bill of Kurosawa's Ikiru and One Wonderful Sunday. When I went, I went during the day and skipped uni, and most of the people there were salarymen skiving off work. You could still smoke in the cinema in those days, so there were clouds of smoke, and there was a guy having a nap – but when the film started, he sat up and sat forward.
Then at the end, all these salarymen clapped. That left the biggest impression on me. It's not like there were actors or director there, and yet, the strangers in the cinema all applauded. Michael Leader
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