There are two new high-profile, Korean-set detective dramas currently making the rounds, directed by Park Chan-wook and Hirokazu Kore-Eda. Anyone familiar with the beloved auteurs’ past work would expect their latest films to be incomparable outside some light genre overlap and a shared national setting. They’d be right. Broker and Decision to Leave are tonally & narratively distinct enough that I’m likely doing them a disservice by lumping them together here, but as a pair I do think they indicate an interesting, mirrored career shift for their respective auteurs. I know Park Chan-wook as an over-the-top sensationalist, one who pushes the boundaries of good taste & genre tropes within the confines of finely tuned, exquisitely staged chamber dramas. By contrast, I know Hirokazu Kore-Eda as a restrained, observational dramatist who finds grand emotion & political importance in small, subtle gestures. What makes their dual 2022 detective stories interesting as a pair is the way the two directors are both reaching towards a middle ground between those extremes. Decision to Leave finds the usually more prankish Park working on his best behavior, while Broker finds Kore-Eda shaking up his typically underplayed docu-dramas with some more traditional, genre-minded payoffs.
That’s not to say that either director has compromised their personal stylistic touches or thematic obsessions. In its broadest strokes, Broker is a very similar movie to Kore-Eda’s previous film, Shoplifters, which in turn was a more accessible version of his earlier triumph Nobody Knows. A story about an illegal, D.I.Y. adoption agency who broker the sale of babies to families outside the foster system, Broker clearly continues Kore-Eda’s auteurist fascination with how unconventional parentage takes shape below the poverty line. It just perks up that story with more entertainment-minded genre tropes and a more pronounced, devious sense of humor than I remember seeing in his previous work. This is basically Shoplifters as a road trip movie where detectives are on the makeshift family’s tail, staking them out so they can be busted at the point of sale. It’s a subtle introduction of accessible genre entertainment into Kore-Eda’s usual low-key dramas, a shift was seemingly influenced by the international success of Parasite – given it’s the Japanese director’s first film set in Korea, he anchors it to the charisma of Bong muse Song Kang-ho (as the lead broker), and he borrows its opening image from Parasite‘s iconic flood sequence. Whatever the inspiration, Broker manages to feel much livelier that Kore-eda’s past work without sacrificing any of his usual emotional or political heft.
Unlike with Kore-Eda, I’m not sure that “measured restraint” is the first quality I look for in a Park Chan-wook film, but it does make Decision to Leave an interesting addition to his oeuvre. You would expect his throwback crime story about an insomniac detective who falls disastrously in love with a femme fatale he suspects to be a murderer would land closer to Basic Instinct than to Hitchcock, but it seems he already got those erotic thriller indulgences out of his system with The Handmaiden. It’s not any less thrilling than the lewder, more explosive payoffs of The Handmaiden, though. There’s an exciting tension in watching Park push his more perverse impulses just below the surface of this traditionalist noir . . . for about an hour; then he starts more openly playing around with the detective-suspect eroticism of the genre. Park holds himself together just long enough to tell the full classic Hollywood version of this detective story, then he stretches it a half-hour past its breaking point to search for the kinkier aspects of the detective-murderess dynamic. It’s a relatively tame movie by his standards, but there are scenes where he lingers on the femme fatale displaying her domestic abuse wounds as an act of flirtation or becoming visibly aroused by her assigned-detective using brutal force against other perps. It’s almost like watching Hitchcock make the subversively kinky Vertigo after he made the more explicitly perverse Frenzy, pulling back instead of leaning into his darkest impulses.
Maybe there’s an indication that these two distinct, disparate directors are gradually meeting in the middle – one softening their perversion stories’ sharpest edges and the other spicing up their intimate family dramas with some crime-world thrills. More likely, they just happen to be pushing themselves to try new things instead of remaking the same picture over and over again, something that should be an auteur’s biggest fear. Even if they both fully committed to these new directions in their work, it would take dozens of films for them to meet on common ground. I just find it interesting that these deviations from their respective personal norms both happened to take the shape of detective stories set in the same country, released at the same time of year.