Written & Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
I was blown away by Shoplifters, filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2018 movie about a family of outcasts who find solace in each other from an often cruel world. It was my first encounter with the writer/director, and his attention to humanism was a wonderful thing to experience. This meant I was pretty excited to watch Broker, and I can’t say my expectations were met. Broker is not a bad movie, but it doesn’t reach the heights of Shoplifters. Nevertheless, we still get a remarkable story about another found family that has to face reality in the end and find some way to hold the love they had for each other while the world pulls them apart. Once again, Kore-eda shows us that the most compelling stories to be told are ones about humans and their complicated relationships with each other.
Broker begins with three pairs of people intersecting. The first pair are Moon (Lee Ji-Eun) and her baby, Woo-sung, who she is leaving at a church drop-off for unwanted children. She leaves the child on the ground outside of the drop-off bin and walks away. The second pair are detectives watching the church. Soo-jin (Bae Doona) and Lee (Lee Joo-young) are watching this spot after evidence shows that a black market orphan ring may be using it. And finally, the third pair is Ha Sang-Hyeon (Song Kang-ha) and Hyung Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), the two men volunteering overnight at the church and secreting away any babies that do get dropped off. They delete the surveillance footage and sell the babies to couples that cannot afford or wait for the slow-moving formal adoption system that often favors white American parents.
Moon suddenly has feelings of regret and returns to the church but finds her baby is gone. Soo-jin got out of her unmarked car and put the baby in the drop-off bin to ensure they could track the two men stealing the children away. Moon discovers what the two men are up to and decides to go on a road trip with them as they look for people able & willing to pay for her child. Soon-jin and her partner trail after them while another discovery is made, a wealthy man murdered, and it points to Moon.
Kore-eda’s work is marked by a great depth of humanity. Two of his central characters in this movie are black market baby sellers, easy people to hate as soon as you meet them. Yet, the director explores their backgrounds and tries to determine why they do this. The world of Broker is full of sex workers and gangsters, a violent space that is easy to fear & shun. But these are people; they are just people who went down a very different path than most of us, sometimes by choice and some by necessity. Kore-eda does not judge them; instead, he holds them responsible for their actions. This is also South Korea, a world different from that of Shoplifters’ Japan, even though they both spotlight people living on the fringes of society.
Unlike Shoplifters, I felt Broker drifted into soap operatic melodrama a bit too much. There’s the murder subplot which just feels too heightened for the more contemplative atmosphere a story like this calls for. As a result, that storyline comes to a resolution, but it feels muddled alongside the strong character focus. And for its two-hour-plus runtime, I didn’t feel like I got a strong sense of some important characters. Motivations were not made clear enough, and that caused me to lack an emotional resolution to the story. I just didn’t feel as strongly moved by this ending as I was by the devastating and honest conclusion of Shoplifters.
Part of that problem is with Lee Ji-Eun. Moon is such an essential character to the story that you needed a much more assured actor who could deliver a confident yet vulnerable performance. Ji-Eun seemed stilted and forced; she has one of the heaviest-handed lines in the whole movie, one of those pieces of dialogue where the filmmaker seems to be saying, “Look, this is the point of the movie! See!” It was interesting seeing a Japanese director work in a South Korean space with South Korean performers in light of that country’s robust film industry. In my head, I think I was expecting something like a Bong-Joon Ho picture or Park Chan-wook, and this simply is not that.
Broker is not a bad film by any means. It is far better than most anything you’ll catch in your local cineplex, but it lacks subtlety, which is a shame. I don’t think Kore-eda failed, but he didn’t deliver a picture with the emotional weight I was looking for. I plan on going back through his filmography at some point (my To Be Watched list is getting the same unwieldy levels as my To Be Read pile) because he is such an observant & thoughtful filmmaker. I think the region of the world producing the best humanist cinema at the moment is Southeast Asia. There is such a sensitivity to people and their inner lives that is so lacking in the garish movie productions coming out of North America, and I don’t expect the States to pivot to making better pictures any time soon (at least under the studio system).
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