Mia, Brian and Gemma discuss their fave noms and gongs from the latest guild shortlists. A quick look at the Golden Globes, the EE BAFTA Rising Star award public voting is open! And it’s animation time: Turning Red director Domee Shi has a message for the Letterboxd community, and we go deep on Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman and Sergio Leone with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish director Joel Crawford. Then, we re-evaluate the 1976 Best Director Oscar lineup.
Award-winning actor Song Kang-ho and director Hirokazu Kore-eda on the small details that build character, Broker’s lovely baby and the power of remaining cheerful.
What I wanted to say about the story is not that there is a good and evil, necessarily, to these characters, but that they are able to accept life as it is, despite—or alongside—the situations that they’re put in.—⁠Song Kang-ho
Broker, the latest feature from renowned filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, began with actor Song Kang-ho and a baby. “I had this motif in mind of a baby box where mothers can legally surrender their infants for adoption,” the Palme d’Or-winning director of After Life and Shoplifters tells me over Zoom. “The first scene that came to mind was of Song Kang-ho dressed as a priest, picking up this baby from a baby box,” he adds, describing his vision of the Parasite star “smiling at it and saying, ‘we’re going to be happy together.’” The kicker comes soon after: Kore-eda then pictured Song’s character “turning around and selling the baby five minutes into the film.”
In the final product, it takes a little longer for Sang-hyeon (Song) to find a buyer for the baby that a desperate young woman abandons in Broker’s opening scene. Sang-hyeon is the leader of a small circle of unlicensed freelance adoption brokers—or, as the cops who trail them throughout the film see it, kidnappers and human traffickers—who snatch infants from a Catholic church in Busan by posing as priests to get access to the building and erasing surveillance footage of their abductions. Their tiny, sweet-smelling contraband thus obtained, they then drive up and down the Korean coast in search of desperate couples who have lots of cash and few questions.
Similar to the scrappy crew at the center of Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, Sang-hyeon and his companions are only criminals if you look at them through the lens of law and order. Seen in a different light, they’re more like a family. First and foremost, there’s Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), Sang-hyeon’s partner, a young man who grew up in an orphanage and truly believes that they’re saving these kids from a miserable existence as wards of the state.
At the beginning of the film, the duo becomes a trio when So-young (Lee Ji-eun, also known as the musician IU), the mother of Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo’s latest find, shows up with some second thoughts. Offers to cut So-young in on the deal are enough to drown out her conscience, however, and she joins the duo—just long enough to get paid, she says. Later on, the trio becomes a quartet, as football-obsessed eight-year-old Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo) joins their outlaw-ish band.
Kore-eda’s films often feature children, and the director enjoys working with them. “It’s all about waiting,” he says of directing kids. “Rather than trying to make them fit into my way of doing things, I try to find the environment and the way of working and the words that make it easy and fun for them to perform, and then adjust my way of working to suit them.” This process is of a piece with an observation Song makes about his director, telling me that Kore-eda has a “unique sense of calmness and approach to building a film together… he guides and interpret[s] a film as it’s being made.” He adds, “observing [a Kore-eda film] as it grows and being able to adjust to its growth was very noteworthy for me, and something that I really took away from the process.”
Small details are at the foundation of every character in Broker. The dry cleaning van that Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo use as their primary mode of transport is held together with a ragged orange plastic rope rigged to the front dashboard. It’s a touch that reflects the characters’ desperate financial circumstances, ingenuity, and persistence in the face of adversity.
Flourishes like this are incorporated early on in Kore-eda’s writing process: “That’s how I like to create characters,” he says. “Those are the things that build the character. The rope that closes the trunk of the dry cleaner’s van—the fact that he’s come up with this idea, to be able to pull the rope as he is driving along to shut the trunk because it doesn’t close on its own… It’s something that Dong-soo would come up with. That’s who he is.”
Throughout Broker, Song also uses everyday props—the eyeglasses Sang-hyeon wears when he’s working at his laundry business (which is clearly not successful, given his sideline in selling babies)—and small actions—in one scene, he indulges Hae-jin in his love of going through a carwash with the windows down—to express his character’s gentle and attentive nature. Most prominent is the constant care he puts into his latest charge: whenever he and a baby are in the same shot, he is either feeding, bathing, or soothing it. His hands are never still.
Song, whose own children are now adults, says that Broker gave him the chance to “re-experience the warmth and loveliness of holding a baby,” but “he was heavy,” he adds with a laugh. “So I made [Gang Dong-won] carry the baby most of the time. He’s strong, he can hold the baby.”
Although the circumstances are, let’s say, unusual, Sang-hyeon is a good dad. Or is he just a savvy businessman protecting his investment? This ambiguity is a constant presence in Kore-eda’s film, a story of makeshift families whose complex morality and novelistic sense of detail give it the texture of real life. Sang-hyeon has a complicated and tragic past that is parceled out in small pieces as the story unfolds, but Song says that he didn’t place much emphasis on backstory when crafting his performance.
“I think it ties into the theme of Broker as a film—the life that we lead might have difficulty, but it continues,” he says. Instead, Song says, he “approached this character under the idea that there is nothing truly decisive about life… What I wanted to say about the story is not that there is a good and evil, necessarily, to these characters, but that they are able to accept life as it is, despite—or alongside—the situations that they’re put in.”
With Broker and 2019’s The Truth, the Japanese director Kore-eda has made his last two films outside of his home country, with actors who don’t speak Japanese; “I wanted to take that chance, take that opportunity, and see what would be the same and what would be different about working in those places,” he says.
Broker took him to South Korea, where he worked with translators at every stage of the production. “I felt that we did a good job of overcoming the language barriers,” Kore-eda tells me. “Be it with the actors or the camera operators, there’s a lot that you can communicate through gestures. More than through words, even,” he adds, pointing and gesturing in an imitation of telling a camera operator to zoom in. “I want to communicate through my words as well, of course, but on set, I had the confidence to be able to communicate even without words.”
It does take confidence to go to a country you’ve never worked in and propose a project to an actor you’ve never met. Being one of Japan’s top directors and a Palme d’Or winner never hurts, of course. And the collaboration did pay off for Song, who won the Best Actor award at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival for his role as Sang-hyeon.
Kore-eda was an admirer of the actor before writing Broker specifically for him. So how was the collaborative experience? “He really seems to enjoy his work and to love acting,” the director tells me about his lead. “I think it’s fantastic that he doesn’t compromise at all when he’s filming. He can’t allow anything to be on the screen in terms of his performance that he is not completely satisfied with. He said that himself, and he will not lower his standards. So he’s very patient as well in that sense. He’s very tough. And his special talent is that he can do all of that while remaining cheerful.”
But there’s still at least one person Kore-eda admires that he hasn’t worked with—yet. Broker has the year’s most unexpected Paul Thomas Anderson tribute this side of Glass Onion, as a cop played by Bae Doona talks to her husband on the phone while Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” plays on her car stereo. “Remember that movie we saw?,” she asks, reminiscing about Magnolia to help pass the time on a long, dull stakeout.
Kore-eda also turns into a fan when talking about the Licorice Pizza director, saying, “I love him. We’re the same generation, but I really respect him. I’d love to meet him.” Maybe his next film can be about a makeshift family of misfits in the San Fernando Valley—I’d watch a Hirokazu Kore-eda remake of Boogie Nights.
‘Broker’ is playing in limited US theaters now, courtesy of NEON.