Kintsugi Families

The 23rd Annual Newport Beach Film Festival concluded last week. It was, as always, a great week of film, conversation about film, new friendships made and old friendships renewed. Going in, there were two movies I wanted to make sure I did not miss: Martin McDonagh’s Banshees of Inisherin and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker. Banshees, a dark (very dark!) comedy about Ireland, small towns, and friendship, did not disappoint. Pat Shortt gave a great Q&A afterward, touching on the ways that the film epitomizes McDonagh’s attention to character and dialogue, as well as its sources in stage drama. 

On the final day of the festival, there was a second showing of Broker, by maybe my favorite modern director, Kore-eda. (I’ve written about some of his other films here, here, here, here, here, and here.) This is, if I count correctly, his fifteenth non-documentary feature, and even though his films often deal with the same themes, he always manages to find another angle or facet to explore. With Broker, set in Korea, rather than Japan, the opening scene takes place on a rain-soaked set of stairs leading up to a “baby box,” where mothers who do not want their children can place them so that they will be taken care of. Of all his films that I have seen, I do not remember an opening where the dramatic tension is so heightened. 

But that is only the beginning. Originally, Kore-eda was going to be a novelist, and the novelist’s skill is apparent here, laying out all the threads of character and story before slowly weaving them together. There is the baby box (at a church, no less), which may or may not be a front for human trafficking. There are police who are investigating both the human trafficking and illegal adoptions. There is another investigation into a murder, which involves the mother and child in the initial scene. And the movement of the film is provided by the literal movement of what becomes a makeshift family, two men involved with the running of an orphanage, the mother and her child, and another child who has stowed away in the car (the road trip part of this movie reminded me of Kore-eda’s I Wish). All this would make for a dark story, except that Kore-eda infuses it with so much humor and humanity that we cannot help but sympathize with nearly everyone. 

What we see is a cinematic form of Japanese kintsugi pottery, in which broken pieces of a cup or bowl or vase are remade into a new piece, using a lacquer made of powdered gold. So it goes in many of Kore-eda’s films: he shows the brokenness of people and families, and yet brings them together in new configurations, always hopeful. As in Shoplifters, we see people in Broker engaged in questionable, and sometimes illegal, activities, but Kore-eda shows us their humanity. Often, like the “golden repair,” the “new” families appear in shining relief next to the “normal” society. 

Everyone in the movie is engaged in various forms of self-justification and self-deception. Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho, memorable in Parasite) and his partner, Dong-soo (Dong-won Gang) are convinced that they are doing the right thing by “rescuing” (kidnapping) this child, among others, from the sometimes-interminable limbo of orphanages; So-young (Ji-eun Lee), the mother pregnant because of prostitution, wavers over whether it is better for her child, Woo-sung, to be adopted by another family or try to retain custody; even one of the detectives, Soo-jin (Bae Doona), wonders if, by rescuing children from illegal adoptions, she is actually the one who is acting like the “broker.” In a world like this one, nothing is clean, neat, or easy. There are only the facts as they are and how people decide to act upon them. 

The conclusion of the film does not neatly tie up the initial threads. They are still frayed or fraying, and Soo-jin has taken it on herself to work at holding them all together, in hopes of a reunion for So-young and Woo-sung. As a detective, she didn’t cause the fracturing, nor did she encourage the illegal activities, but she feels a responsibility for a son and for his mother. There are still gaps between the pieces, which may never be healed, but she has glued the pieces together to the best of her ability, and glimpses of gold show through nonetheless. 

As with all of Kore-eda’s films, this is one to sit with, to consider, and I am looking forward to its release later this year so I can watch it again.