Hirokazu Koreeda on Broker: “I’m interested in this innate human desire to form a familial unit”

The acclaimed Japanese director behind Shoplifters tells us about his new film, Broker, which finds him returning to the theme of makeshift families, this time in South Korea.

Hirokazu Koreeda filming Broker (2022)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s 15th fiction feature, Broker focuses on Ha Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), a laundry worker who takes babies from a ‘baby box’ outside a church where mothers can leave their unwanted children. The ‘broker’ of the title, he then sells each infant to childless couples with the help of his church worker pal Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won).

When one mother – Moon So-young (Lee Ji-eun) – suffers remorse for abandoning her child, she tracks the pair down and goes on a road trip with them to meet the baby’s potential parents. The unlikely trio strike up a kinship, but also have detectives Soo-jin (Bae Doona) and Lee (Lee Joo-young) hot on their case.

Koreeda’s previous film The Truth (2019), a Paris-set drama about an actor’s outrageous memoirs, was his first film made outside of Japan. In tone and subject, particularly its focus on a makeshift family living on the margins of society, Broker is more of a piece with his 2018 Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters and finds him shooting in South Korea with a fully Korean cast.

We sat down with Koreeda for a Zoom call in which he discussed families, the unusual way he writes endings and what motivates his work.

You discovered the ‘baby box’ adoption system used in Japan, South Korea and other countries around the world while researching Like Father, Like Son (2013). Why did this make an interesting starting point for a film?

When the first baby box was set up in Japan, it was received very critically by the public. The general view was that it would encourage young mothers to get pregnant quite easily and they would abandon babies without deep thought. At the time that criticism was very strong, so it became a topic that interested me.

I’d previously depicted a relationship between mothers and children in Nobody Knows (2004), and in that film the perspective is very much that of the young boy and the children. But it also debates their flaws [and explores] where women and children are vulnerable figures. So that interest was already there in my head, and the baby box idea develops that well, involving the fragile figures of women, the baby, pregnant mothers. The presence of men has been completely taken away from that.

You’ve described Broker as being almost a companion piece to Shoplifters (2018), with the two films focused on criminals who form an alternative family. What is it about this different type of family that interests you?

I’m interested in this innate human desire to form a familial unit. I experienced that myself when I lost my parents. We all seem to have the desire to form a unit with somebody close. I’ve experienced this in my work as well, where a father figure of mine, a producer, passed away and then I needed to form a new unit close to me. 

We all go through that process whether there are blood ties or not. I believe the family unit is only a vessel, a container of what we experience. Life is more about our own humanity.

You’ve made two films away from Japan in a row now. Have you fallen out of love with making films in your home country? Or did you just fancy a change?

No, absolutely not. I have shot a film in Japan; it’s in the editing process at the moment. It was a coincidence. I had been approached to work away from Japan and I thought it would be crazy not to take the opportunity. COVID affected my scheduling as well, because Japanese production came to a halt.

Which character do you most empathise with in Broker and why?

I couldn’t pick one character. Every character has a perspective, an element of myself. Gang Dong-won and Bae Doona as well. Bae Doona was most critical of the mother and the baby box, but I believe there’s a little bit of me in her character. If I were to live my life as one of the characters in the film, then I would choose Hee-joon, the boy who joins the journey, who grew up in the care system. I think he would be able to live life and deal with its hardships.

Did you struggle to write the ending, as has been claimed online?

No. The most enjoyable way to come up with the ending [was] as I was shooting the film. That’s something that I do in Japan as well. The last third of the film is to be decided while the film production process is going on – and that is unusual in Korea.

In Korea you have to have the final draft, as well as the storyboard, all set before you start shooting. This is partly because of the funding process. However, I wanted the flexibility of deciding the ending after I’d seen the dynamics of the actors. I really enjoyed coming up with the ending as we went through.

What is the toughest aspect of making films?

That really depends on the individual films and productions. For example, The Truth was filmed in France, and the editing in post-production was the most challenging part because the grammar in French is completely different to Japanese. That challenge didn’t surface in Broker because Korean and Japanese are much closer. 

In actual filming, communication with the actors, whether it’s in Japan, France or Korea, is one of the most challenging aspects. You need to be sensitive. But it’s one of the most exciting and most enjoyable parts as well. 

What most motivates you about your work as a filmmaker?

I find it fun. I loved films ever since I was a teenager. It was one of the only hobbies that I had. I wasn’t thinking that I would make it into my profession, but I’m so fortunate it eventually became that. If I were to complain in my situation, saying, “Oh, it’s much too tough, too stressful,” I would be one ungrateful… whatever. And that’s not something I want to be.

Can you tell me any details about the film you are currently editing?

It will be released in Japan in June. I can’t tell you too much because it hasn’t been announced yet. But what we can say is that it will be set in elementary school.

Broker is in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, from 24 February 2023.

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