Besides love stories, one of the recurring themes in films shown at Cannes this year is overcoming economic hardship, by any means possible. Two films in the main competition show very different families, from Iran and South Korea, who come up with ingenious and precarious plans to make ends meet.
“Leila’s Brothers” by Iranian director Saeed Roustaee is an intimate portrait of a family, where humiliation plays a key role, both within the family structure and within society itself.
Leila, played by Taraneh Alidoosti has four adult brothers, who are all in and out of work, scraping by for a living. Leila works, but also takes care of her elderly parents – who insult her and treat her like a servant.
The eldest brother Parvis, dangerously overweight, is struggling to raise six girls and a baby on a cleaner’s wages while contending criticism from his evil-tempered father.
Alireza, the second brother, has lost his factory job and ends up coming back home because he hasn’t been paid.
The younger Farhad lives at home, drives a beaten up old car and watches wrestling on TV.
The fourth brother Manouchehr tries to get his siblings to join him in a scheme to make money quickly by selling factory cars that will never get delivered.
But Leila has a different plan in mind – to set them up in business together so they’ll all have an income.
She tells her brothers about a lease coming up in the high end mall where she works in Tehran. A toilet block is to be transformed into shop fronts. Imagine her father’s shame when he hears his children want to set up a business in a former toilet!
Leila convinces her brothers to pool their resources, but they come up short.
Outrage and entrapment
Meanwhile, they discover that their father has been ingratiating himself with cousins who previously showered him with disdain.
When he is asked to be “patriarch” after the death of a cousin, he is honoured to put up the money to pay for the cousin’s son’s wedding.
Leila is outraged when she discovers her father is planning to give his 40 gold coins to pay for this extravagance, rather than helping his own children invest.
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Most of the film revolves around the characters shouting at one another. It is filmed almost entirely indoors, in dark, windowless rooms, heightening a sense of entrapment. It is claustrophobic.
It provides unique, intimate insight into a society rarely seen from the outside, but the themes of humiliation, filial duty, inequality and poverty are universal.
Only the place of Leila is ambiguous. She is a modern, thoughtful woman, not afraid to stand up to her bullying parents and her narrow-minded brothers.
She loves them but also finds them exasperating and this pulls the spectator into her orbit as we increasingly want her to break out of this cycle of failure and oppression.
The only glimmer of hope is that due to her resourcefulness and observation, a family secret will be revealed unlocking new possibilities.
The themes of family secrets, humiliation and redemption are also explored in the film “Broker” by Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu.
It’s the eighth film in selection at Cannes and the sixth in competition for the Japanese filmmaker, whose film “Shoplifters” won the Palme d’Or in 2018.
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This time he has chosen to film in South Korea, with a team of endearing and dysfunctional characters who are also scrabbling to make ends meet.
The story revolves around the concept of “baby boxes”, places where young mothers can leave their newborns anonymously so that they will be cared for by church volunteers.
For reasons we discover later on, the two leading male protagonists prefer to intervene before the church collects the babies, and find adoptive parents for them rather than see them go to orphanages.
They become “brokers” as they try to earn a living looking for people to buy the babies.
The audience only discovers what motivates these two men later in the film, and this softens what appears to be an act of trafficking.
They manage to track down the young mother, offer to share the proceeds of the sale and reassure her the baby will have a stable home.
Meanwhile, she also has her own dark secret.
They end up taking a hilarious, improbable road-trip together in a van, becoming a temporary family so as not to raise suspicions.
By the end of the film, they have grown on one another in ways they couldn’t have anticipated.
On top of that, they don’t realise that they are being followed by two undercover detectives trying to catch them in the act of selling the baby.
However, the women detectives become involved with the “family” on a far more personal level, with touching and unusual results.
The film’s ending is a little disconcerting, but by this stage there have been enough happy-sad moments to accept this odd conclusion.
Kore-eda stays true to his tried and tested recipe of families who, while not necessarily bound by blood, come together out of necessity.
They show acts of kindness and solidarity with one another when faced with hardship and difficulties, making for a heartwarming story on screen.
Originally published on RFI