Broker ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

This film was one of two that I dropped from my MIFF program once the lineup for the Korean Film Festival was announced.  I thought that I might find the five star film that my MIFF lacked with either or both of these films but sadly, both proved to be underwhelming.

I have a very soft spot for Hirokazu Kore-eda’s movies.  The only one that I had seen pre-Covid was Shoplifters (2018), which I loved.  So when we could see a Covid lockdown coming (which turned out to be 43 days), Ken Bowes lent me all of Kore-eda’s back catalogue which I originally planned to watch at the rate of one a day.  However, once I started, that immediately became a bad idea because the undertow in what seemed, on the surface, to be fairly low key family dramas was so intense that the films needed time to process, something that was not possible with a binge watch.  In the end, it took me until the final day of our second lockdown (111 days for this one) to get to Shoplifters again.

When Kore-eda headed to France to make his next film, The Truth (2019), not even the presence of Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche could persuade me that this was not a misfire.  For his latest film, Kore-era has moved to Korea for what is another misfire and I am starting to wonder whether he needs to return home to Japan before he can make great films again.  Looking at his upcoming projects, Maiko-san Chino makanai-san, an eight episode TV series is set in Japan and his other project “in development” is an untitled project for Netflix (hmmm).

Kore-eda’s screenplay for Broker feels like he is trying to recapture the feel of Shoplifters but he has set himself a much tougher task to get an audience to root for Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-Ho), Dong-soo (Dong-won Gang) and So-young (Lee Ji-eun). While the family in Shoplifters were stealing consumer goods that they could easily resell, Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo are stealing abandoned babies (left in the “baby box” at a church where one works and the other volunteers) and selling them to couples on the black market.  When So-young  works out that that is what is happening with her baby, she insists on coming with them on what turns into a road trip to show the product off to prospective buyers.  The trio are tracked by a pair of female detectives, Soo-jin (Bae Doona) and Lee (Lee Joo-young).

There is a bit of self serving rationalisation that they are doing a service for couples who desperately want a child (although there is a suggestion that one prospective couple might be planning to on-sell the merchandise) but the fact remains that cash is the motivation for the three of them and the road trip is at least as much a silent auction to extract the maximum price as it is to “audition” the prospective buyers.

I went back and checked and most of Kore-eda’s film were around the two hour mark (Broker  is 129 minutes) but this one felt longer.  There were places where it was just flabby and others where sub-plots were introduced but went nowhere.  The gangster found beaten to death in a Busan hotel room and his mother who sends a couple of goons after So-young’s baby, Woo-sung (Park Ji-yong), believing, maybe correctly, that he is her grandson and a meeting between Sang-hyeon and his daughter are underdeveloped and just clutter up the storyline.  And Hae-Jin (Im Seung-soo), the pre-teen orphan who stows away in their van so is taken along on the road trip seems to be there to up the “cute kids” quotient (already brimming with Woo-sung) and for a bit of comic relief.

The ending just compounds the film’s difficulties - it seems poorly set up with what has gone before and leans heavily into maudlin, mawkish sentimentality to the degree that we have not seen from Kore-eda since Like Father Like Son (2013).  This was not bad, it was just mediocre and I will be surprised if I can remember much of the story line in a year’s time.  In another pair of strange decisions from this year’s Cannes juries, Song won the awkward for Best Actor and the film won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.  Having just seen a number of Cannes films at MIFF, I am scratching my head again at their decisions.

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