Acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda is back in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with his first South Korean film which explores the country’s controversial practice of “drop boxes” for unwanted babies.
The movie is one of two South Korean pictures competing for the Palme d’Or along with Park Chan-wook’s ‘Decision to Leave’, after Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” became the country’s first film to win the coveted honour in 2019.
Since then, more Korean-language productions have enjoyed explosive global success, from Netflix’s “Squid Game” to Apple TV+’s “Pachinko”.
Kore-eda, who won the top prize at Cannes in 2018 for his family drama “Shoplifters” — about a group of Tokyo misfits and crooks who form a kind of alternative family — is back with another tale delving into similar themes.
His new South Korean-produced film “Broker” looks at so-called baby boxes where mothers can anonymously abandon their newborns to avoid the stigma and hardship of being a single mother in a patriarchal society.
While researching the project, the Japanese filmmaker, who has been lauded for his sensitive, contemplative explorations of complex family relationships, met children at orphanages.
The youngsters, Kore-eda said, questioned whether, as unwanted babies, it would have been better not to be born.
Their question became the focus of the film, Kore-eda said.
“Baby boxes exist in Japan as well,” Kore-eda said at a press conference in Seoul earlier this month, which he attended virtually.
“I wanted to portray the journey of a group of people — some with good intentions and some with malice — with various stories surrounding a baby who was left in a baby box.”
– ‘Naturalistic’ –
The film is a collaboration between Kore-eda and a South Korean all-star cast, including top actors Song Kang-ho (Parasite), Gang Dong-won (Peninsula), and K-pop megastar Lee Ji-eun.
“It is a massive ensemble cast — hard to think of a recent film that has had such a long list of high-profile names,” Jason Bechervaise, a visiting professor at Korea University, told AFP.
Song, 55, has long been a favourite with leading South Korean film-makers, including Bong, who he collaborated with on 2019’s Oscar-winning “Parasite”.
Kore-eda said Song’s previous performances were a key inspiration for “Broker”.
The versatile actor has played a range of characters from a repressed Catholic priest who becomes a vampire to a Joseon-era king who starves his son to death.
In “Broker”, Song plays a debt-ridden man who discovers an abandoned baby and volunteers to find him a new family — in exchange for money.
“Song Kang-ho is such an expressive actor, whether that is expressing tension, comedy, or confusion,” Brian Hu, a film professor at San Diego State University, told AFP.
“On the other hand, Kore-eda’s work is so much more naturalistic, often treating professional actors as he might non-professional ones,” he said.
“So this is not just a clash across cultures, but also across cinematic styles.”
‘Meticulous and calculated’ – Kore-eda has defied geopolitical tension to build strong relationships with top South Korean talent, even visiting the Busan International Film Festival in 2019 during a trade war.
At the time, he said Japan and South Korea — which have a long, complex history — could “solve and overcome political problems” through solidarity.
“Kore-eda is obviously a much-admired film-maker so he is able to attract such talent,” Bechervaise said.
“It’s interesting that he has come to Korea to make his next film despite frosty ties.”
Song said he had expected “meticulous and calculated” direction from Kore-eda, partly based on his own preconceived ideas about Japanese artists.
“But he really respected us and brought out our certain emotions in such a way that was really free, comfortable and inexhaustible.”
Actress and K-pop star Lee — also known as IU — plays the young mother who abandons her newborn.
One of the most successful K-pop artists of her generation, the 28-year-old received rave reviews for her performance in 2018 television drama series “My Mister”, where she played a heavily indebted young woman.
Kore-eda said he watched the series during the pandemic and was moved to tears by her performance, which made him decide to offer her the “Broker” role.