As Broker hits UK cinemas, Hirokazu Kore-eda talks about black market baby adoptions, and why he made this film in Korea instead of his native Japan
Japan and Korea have a long and complicated history – but recent cultural exchange and collaboration has helped warm a relationship once defined by invasion, colonisation and bitterness. So what happens when, at the height of Korea’s Hallyu cultural explosion, Japan’s greatest contemporary filmmaker – Palme d’Or winner and Oscar nominee Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters) – decides to make his new film in Korea? You get Broker, an award-winning drama about black market baby adoptions.
Broker stars Song Kang-ho (Parasite) and Gang Dong-won (Peninsula) as a pair of benevolent criminals who wipe the CCTV records at a local church adoption centre in order to rehome an abandoned infant for profit. They hit a snag when the baby’s young mother (Lee Ji-eun) has a change of heart, and decides she wants in on the gambit. All the while, a stoic police detective (Bae Doona, The Host) is hot on their trail, stalking them through the rainy port-side city of Busan and the rich countryside towards a distant fairground. It’s a road movie full of warmth and compassion – and a high bar-setter in the still burgeoning field of Japanese-Korean filmmaking.
It was an unconventional plot device that led to the decision to shoot in Korea, Kore-eda tells AnOther over Zoom. “I’d learned about baby boxes in Japan,” he says, highlighting a hospital in Kumamoto where underage or unprepared mothers can anonymously give up their babies into care. (It was something he’d discovered while researching Like Father, Like Son, the director’s 2013 drama about a businessman who learns that his biological son was switched after birth.) But after visiting a film festival in Korea, he realised the plot was relevant to local society. “Adoption is a lot more common in Korea. Around ten times more babies have been adopted through baby boxes [than in Japan], so I thought that Korea would be a great place to explore this topic.”
If baby boxes were the impetus, then working with the cream of Korea’s creative talent was the incentive. Song Kang-ho – famed for his roles as a North Korean border guard in Park Chan-wook’s Joint Security Area (2000), a homicide detective in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) and the father in the low-income Kim family in the Oscar-winning Parasite (2019) – is one of the country’s most compelling leading men. The idea of collaboration had been broached as early as 2012 or 2013, says Kore-eda, when the actor and his Broker co-star Gang Dong-won were each promoting Korean films in Japan.
“He has a real lightness to him, a sunny disposition,” the director says of the former. “But he also possesses this duality, as well. He can portray good and evil at the same time. And even if it’s a dramatic or serious thing, he would be able to create a moment of comedy.” Cast as the de facto paternal figure (and head baby smuggler) within Broker’s motley crew, Song is the film’s captivating emotional anchor – a laundry business owner with a debt owed to the mob, who is constantly doting on the infant child in his care. It would be the perfect casting: Song won best actor at Cannes after the film’s premiere in 2022, making him the first Korean recipient of the award in history.
Gang Dong-won, meanwhile, is exemplary as a fellow baby broker whose mother turned her back on him as a child. “He has broad shoulders,” says the director, “and there is a great sense of pathos and sadness you can see just by shooting his back.” The capabilities of Bae Doona, on the other hand, were known to Kore-eda already: he’d previously cast her as an inflatable sex doll with a human consciousness in 2009 oddity Air Doll. She’s captivating here despite largely being restricted to a parked car on a stakeout, where she picks at instant ramen and gazes solemnly out the window. “She would internalise what was happening outside; she shows what is happening beyond languages and behind facial expressions through her pacing, or a great sense of stillness. That kind of portrayal is very rich.”
Broker’s striking use of bright, natural daylight – and its elevation of warm ocean- and sky-blues – accentuates the film’s light mood, preventing it from becoming overly tragic or sentimental. It’s something that’s further evoked through delicate ambient sounds, like the breeze of the city, the distant birdsong and the apprehensive silences – but also through the touching score by Jung Jae-il, the composer behind Parasite, Okja and Squid Game, another key collaborator.
“I wasn’t actually considering him at first,” says the director. “But he delivered a CD of his guitar-playing to my hotel room, and I thought, well, if he’s this passionate then maybe I should let him take on the role.” Jung’s sparse piano keys, chiming guitars, gently strummed chords and arpeggios, then, would bring an essential tenderness to the group’s road-bound adventure. He was a perfectionist, says Kore-eda, who was always in the editing room to see his music playing with the image. “In the opening sequence, in the car with the baby in the pouring rain, for example, he thought the piano was too fast. So the next day, he recorded another version. It was only about a second different, but [he insisted that] it ended up in the final cut.”
While obstacles such as the language barrier have been alluded to elsewhere, Kore-eda claims that understanding the differences between the Japanese and Korean film industries was something he wanted to experience first-hand – especially as he calls for industry reform at home. (He recently founded a lobby group looking to improve the level of financial support and general working conditions for filmmakers.) In Korea, a clearly set maximum of 52-hour working weeks proved valuable during the making of Broker; for his next native production, the recently announced Monster, he is aiming to repeat the trick – but “[in Japan,] it’s very difficult to have a complete day off, in reality”, he says.
It seems he’s not alone in his curiosity for Korea’s industry: Audition director Takashi Miike just recently completed an all-Korean TV series called Connect for Disney+, while Ryusuke Hamaguchi previously revealed that he nearly shot Oscar-winning drama Drive My Car there, citing the Korean industry’s supportive and thriving atmosphere. Could greater collaboration between the two filmmaking meccas be a reality in the near future? Kore-eda, at least, would be receptive. “By having a deeper collaboration – for example, with Korean filmmakers coming to Japan to work with Japanese actors, as well – it would encourage a deeper understanding, and enable us to really learn good things from both sides,” he says. If Broker is anything to go by, we’ll welcome that partnership with open arms.
Broker is out in UK cinemas now.