Tokyo: 5 Questions with Japan's Leading Auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda

Hirokazu Kore-eda
Jun Sato/WireImage

Hirokazu Kore-eda

The Oscar-nominee and Palme D'or winner ('Shoplifters') opens up about why he personally got involved in transforming the Tokyo International Film Festival and how he's approaching his next feature, 'Baby, Box, Broker,' which will be told in Korean and star Song Kong-ho.

Hirokazu Kore-Eda, arguably Japan's most esteemed contemporary auteur, is a ubiquitous presence at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2020.

No stranger to top-tier film festivals — he won the Palme D'or at Cannes in 2018 with Shoplifters and his latest feature, The Truth, starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke, opened Venice last year — Kore-eda has taken it upon himself personally to aid Tokyo's renewed effort to boost its international profile.

The director's first foray to that effect is the festival's all-new "Asia Lounge." Originally intended as both a panel discussion series and a physical location where filmmakers and festival attendees could gather for meals, drinks and conversation, the forum has had to shift gears in response to the pandemic. Instead, the program has become eight consecutive nights of panel discussions conducted over Zoom, featuring a selection of filmmakers handpicked by Kore-eda. Participants include Asian filmmaking luminaries like China's Jia Zhangke, Thai Palme d'Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Japan's own Kiyoshi Kurosawa (winner of 2020 best director honor at Venice), as well as emerging talents, like South Korea's Kim Bora (House of Hummingbird). Several of the panels will be moderated by Kore-eda himself (and all of them will later be edited, subtitled and shared on YouTube).

Before the director could disappear into the drizzly Tokyo night after his second day of moderating discussions, The Hollywood Reporter grabbed him for a brief chat about his plans to transform Japan's flagship cinema event and how he's approaching his next film, the all-Korean feature Baby, Box, Broker, which will star the great Song Kong-ho, Bae Doona and Gang Dong-won.

What were the observations and goals behind your decision to get personally involved in the Tokyo International Film Festival?

I have always thought that we have a very rich and diverse history of cinema and filmmaking here in Japan, but despite this, there are no international film festivals in our country that really match, or reflect, that richness and diversity. This is very different from what you see in France or Italy, for example. For years and years, I have been thinking about how we can improve on this here in Tokyo. It was five years ago that I put forward, in writing, a document containing my suggestions, or proposals, on how to improve the Tokyo International Film Festival. And whenever there was a change in the directorship of the festival, I came up with proposals saying, in this way, you can make the festival better.

One idea I've always had was that it would be good to have a centralized lounge of some kind, a place that provides an opportunity for the international guests and festivalgoers to get together, meet people and talk freely. These kinds of opportunities are something that has been missing from this festival. Tokyo is such a huge city; it was very unclear where guests should go to meet one another when they are attending the festival.

So, providing a lounge or a meeting place, was one proposal I put forward five years ago, and we have finally been able to realize it — even though, of course, we have had to change the plan to create something virtually.

Of course, the main purpose of a film festival, anyway, is to screen and introduce films to an audience. But I think this lounge series is a first step. Little by little, we can introduce changes to the framework of the film festival. So this was just one way of putting forward constructive criticism.

As you mentioned, your plans for the Asia Lounge had to take a very different form — as an online panel discussion series — because of the pandemic. You also described this year's effort as just a first step. For the international film community who might be hoping to return to the Tokyo festival in 2021 when the pandemic has subsided (hopefully...), what's your vision for what it will be like next year?

The next step would be to take away the border separating Asia from the rest of the world and really expand the geographical scope for the platform. On the other hand, there are many film festivals here in Asia, and I think they should all be connected and working together. I feel that really acutely as a person involved in the film industry who is interested in collaborating with and supporting filmmakers from other Asian countries, which are all producing really meaningful work.

Yesterday, we had a young Korean filmmaker, Kim Bora, who directed House of Hummingbird; and this evening, we had the Taiwanese director Huang Xi (Missing Johnny, 2017). Both made outstanding feature debuts. Really, if you look at the role the great film festivals play, they discover new talents and introduce them to the film festival community, who provides feedback. Then, as those talents continue to mature, they come back to the festival and their new works are more anticipated and better understood. That is the inherent role of a film festival — creating this connection and cycle amongst the film festival, the filmmakers, the audience, and, of course, the films themselves. So when I looked at the Tokyo festival, what can I do? Maybe by hosting this lounge, with these young and more established filmmakers I admire, we can create some connections — and help the Tokyo festival get this cycle moving.

So, I have to ask about your next project, Baby, Box, Broker, which will be your first Korean-language project. Last I read, you're still in the process of writing the film, so I won't probe too much about the story. Instead, just one question: How are you approaching writing a character for Song Kang-ho and what are your thoughts about how you would like to use him and his unique persona? Asian cinema fans are pretty excited about a Kore-eda/Song Kang-ho pairing.

I've actually just completed the first draft of the script for Baby, Box, Broker. Things will start rolling in a real way at the end of this month. When I was writing the screenplay, I was very much developing the characters and shaping the story with those three specific actors in mind. I have been developing this project for over four years now, so I've really taken lots of time thinking these characters through. It's all been moving in a pretty smooth fashion though. Of course, it has been taking a lot of time, but that's only natural. I expected that. About these three Korean actors themselves, I'm tremendously excited to be working with them — especially Song Kang-ho. I don't want to discuss the character yet. I'm just excited. I'm really looking forward to working with him.

Also, you're not the first person to say that they are excited to see how this collaboration comes out. I can only say that I hope I won't betray your expectations.

Baby, Box, Broker will be your second time working in a foreign language and culture, following The Truth (2019), which was told in French and English. What did you learn from that first experience of working in a non-Japanese filmmaking idiom, and how will it inform how you approach the new project?

Well, it made me realize that there are some things you can overcome with a language barrier, but on the other hand, there are some things that simply cannot be overcome. I realized that there are always unbridgeable aspects between different languages. Of course, I did everything I could. Long before getting on set and actually shooting the film, there was lots of correspondence going back and forth between myself and France. Many preparations, meetings and consultations. I tried to make sure that everyone was sharing the same vision. Attempts were made to express everything very clearly to the cast and crew about my intentions, exactly how I wanted the film to be made and shot. It's funny; it made me realize how little of that direct communication I do when I'm making a film in Japan. I can sort of indicate what I want and people get it. Perhaps I should be clearer in Japan too. I don't know. But I knew it would be very difficult to revise anything once I was on set in France, because of the language barrier. I was working with truly great actors, as well. So I had to be very thoughtful about how I prepared everyone.

The one thing I found really challenging compared to all of my previous experience — much more so than the actual shooting — was the editing. I don't understand French, so of course, I don't understand French grammar and rhythms. I had a skilled interpreter helping me, of course. But it was so difficult to know where to cut. Like, why do I need to cut at this particular time and not that time? I couldn't necessarily trust my own feel. That was very difficult for me to accept.

So it's going to be much the same, I think, with my next project, working with the Korean actors and the crew. But I'm very glad that I already had this experience once before, because now I know where the weak spots are, and I can be even more mindful of them.

I find myself wondering whether the reality of Japan and Korea's painful history and the perennial political tensions that exist between the two countries are affecting how you approach working within that specific film culture. Do you approach it any differently than you did working in France — do you feel you need to have a different level of sensitivity because of that political reality? Or is it all just storytelling?

Well, the subject and the theme of this next project of mine is really not political in any way, and it has nothing to do with Japanese and Korean history. It's a very simple story, and how the project came about has been very natural. It's just a matter of working with the actors that I deeply respect, and them saying that they would be happy to work with me. Everything has come about very happily and naturally.

I honestly don't know whether there will be some people in Japan or Korea who will not think well of this particular project because of politics. But if there are such people, my only hope is that I will be able to make a film which, if they come watch it in the cinema, they will come out saying, "Oh, that was actually an interesting and fascinating film."

Usually, when I talk about politics, I always say that if there are political attempts to obstruct exchange and interaction between people of different countries or cultures, then art has a role to push against, or breakthrough such obstructions, or barriers.

But this new project of mine does not have that particular purpose to serve. It is not conscious of that issue, and it's not part of my movie. I hope that there's no misunderstanding on that point. But I do very much believe that cultural expression should never be subservient to politics.