Japanese 'Shoplifters' filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda heads to South Korea for another sincere, empathetic and sublime tale about makeshift families.
March 30, 2023
When Bong Joon-ho's Parasite won Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or in 2019, it became the second movie in as many years to nab the coveted prize for exploring class and wealth inequality through a tale of family. The year prior, when Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters scored the same gong, it too examined the ties that bind, plus the societal circumstances that conspire against and complicate such bonds. Indeed, that's the Japanese filmmaker's favourite subject. In a career spanning over three decades, he keeps being drawn to people who are drawn together, sometimes by biology and sometimes because that's simply the hand that fate has played in shaping a makeshift brood. It's fitting, then, that Kore-eda's latest Broker — his second feature since that big win — stays true to his go-to topic while also starring Parasite's Song Kang-ho. This is Kore-eda's first South Korean film, following 2019's French and English The Truth, which was his first non-Japanese picture. This is vintage Kore-eda, in fact, and it's warm, wise, wonderful, canny and complex.
No matter how his on-screen families come to be, if there's any actual blood between them, whether they're grifting in some way or where in the world they're located, the Japanese writer/director's work has become so beloved — so magnificent, too — due to his care and sincerity. A Kore-eda film is a film of immense empathy and, like Like Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister, After the Storm and The Third Murder also in the prolific talent's past decade, Broker is no different. The setup here is one of the filmmaker's murkiest, with the feature's name referring to the baby trade. But showing compassion and humanity isn't up for debate in Kore-eda's approach. He judges the reality of modern-day life that leads his characters to their actions, but doesn't judge his central figures. In the process, he makes poignant melodramas that are also deep and thoughtful character studies, and that get to the heart of the globe's ills like the most cutting slices of social realism.
It isn't just to make a buck that debt-ridden laundromat owner Sang-hyun (Song, Emergency Declaration) and orphanage-raised Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won, Peninsula) take infants abandoned to the Busan Family Church's 'baby box' — a chute that's exactly what it sounds like, available to mothers who know they can't embrace that part for whatever reason — then find good families to sell them to. There's a cash component, of course, but they're convinced that their gambit is better than letting children languish in the state system. In Kore-eda's usual kindhearted manner, Broker sees them with sensitivity. Even if blue hues didn't wash through the film's frames, nothing is ever black and white in the director's movies. The same understanding and tenderness flows towards mothers like So-young (Lee Ji-eun, Hotel Del Luna, aka K-Pop star IU), whose decision to leave Woo-sung (debutant Park Ji-yong) isn't easily made but puts Broker on its course.
It's on a rainy night that So-young farewells Woo-sung, placing him gently in the hatch packed with blankets and soundtracked by lullabies, and leaving a note to say that she'll be back to claim him. She's nervous and tentative, peering around to see if anyone is watching — astutely so, because two groups are waiting on her significant choice. The traffickers have their plan to enact, while detectives Su-jin (Doona Bae, The Silent Sea) and Lee (Lee Joo-young, Rose Mansion) are keen to catch them. Muddying matters for both: unlike what usually happens in this situation, So-young does genuinely return for her baby. So sparks a road trip with Sang-hyun, Dong-soo and football-loving seven-year-old Hae-jin (first-timer Seung-soo Im), a runaway orphan, to meet Woo-sung's prospective adoptive parents, all with the cops on their trail as part of a six-month investigation.
Broker's plot is never straightforward, nor are the questions it incites — questions about what family truly means, what governments say it's supposed to and why a ragtag group of outsiders can find a greater sense of belonging together on the run than anywhere else. Without offering any simple justifications, answers or solutions, Kore-eda ensures that the factors that lead So-young to the baby box, and Sang-hyun and Dong-soo to the illicit adoption market, constantly demand the audience's attention. "This car is filled with liars," Dong-soo says mid-trip, but it's the why behind that statement that sits at Broker's core. Like in Shoplifters before it, Kore-eda queries the forces that've made his characters who they are, brought them to this juncture and meant that the choices they're making feel like the only ones they can. Here, that includes pondering expectations placed upon women whether or not they're mums, the baggage attached to motherhood, the alternatives to baby boxes, and the stark truth that bringing life into the world and having a family aren't the same things.
If he'd decided that literature rather than cinema was his medium of choice, there's no doubting that Kore-eda would've made an excellent novelist. His plots are that layered, perceptive, generous, emotional and involving. Also, in his TV adaptation The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House, one of 2023's streaming delights, he showed that he's equally as skilled at bringing tales from the page to the screen. But filmmaking is clearly Kore-eda's calling — and he's such a masterful visual storyteller, not to mention an affectionate movie craftsman, that it's forever plain to see why. Enlisting the great South Korean cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, a veteran not just of the aforementioned Parasite but also Bong's Snowpiercer and Mother, Na Hong-jin's 2016 standout The Wailing and Lee Chang-dong's sublime Burning from 2018, he gives Broker an earthy, lived-in, clear-eyed and yet eternally hopeful look. Falling rain, cramped rooms, cosy car rides, sprawling countryside, everyday phone calls: this film, and Kore-eda and Hong, make each one stun and say, well, everything.
Broker's score by Jung Jae-il (another Parasite alum, and also Squid Game's composer) — plus the movie's spectacular use of Amy Mann's 'Wise Up' on its soundtrack, nods to Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia and all — are just as impressively and attentively fashioned. Nothing quite makes a Kore-eda feature what it is like his way with casting, though, pairing his empathetic stories with actors who gracefully live and breathe the same trait under his gaze. Accordingly, Kore-eda and the always-exceptional Song are a match made in cinematic heaven; it's no wonder that the latter deservedly earned Cannes' 2022 Best Actor prize for his latest phenomenal performance as a complex patriarch-type. Kore-eda and Bae is just as sterling a duo, too, especially when it comes to conveying yearning within this already bittersweet tale. Every heartfelt portrayal in Broker gets its audience feeling, however, including the scene-stealing Lee as a woman facing impossible choices, and pivotal baby Park.
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