"Broker" Cannes Review
Revered Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda has been on a sort of international tour since he won the Palme d’Or for Shoplifters during the 2018 edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Before then, he’d remained tied to his native Japan beginning with his 1995 directorial debut, Maborosi.
But after the golden laurels, he set his sights on making his English-language debut, The Truth, with Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, and Ethan Hawke. Also uncharacteristic was the film’s debut at the Venice International Film Festival, away from Cannes where four of his last five films premiered. While it couldn't be considered a failure, the film was seen as a lesser work from a dependable master.
So, as a possible rebound tactic, Kore-eda has returned to familiar territory with Broker, debuting in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But Kore-eda hasn’t made a full return as he stops just short of Japan by setting and supplying his film with top-tier talent from South Korea. And with the help of his crew, many of which come from Parasite including lead actor Song Kang-ho, cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, and composer Jung Jae-il, Kore-eda has crafted a touching, if familiar, story about families forming in the most unlikely of circumstances.
A baby has been left in a deposit box used by mothers who can’t, or won’t, keep their babies. Two of the employees at the facility, Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), have formed a partnership to circumvent the rules of the establishment by taking the babies into their protection and selling them under the table to needy couples. The act itself isn’t just about the money, even though it does help since the going rate for a child is nearly $10,000. The pair see themselves as saviors for these kids, as selling them off gets them to a proper home much quicker than the laborious state-run system.
1 in 40 mothers that drop off their babies never return, but So-young (Lee Ji-eun) is that one. She comes back to discover that her baby has been snatched by the pair, whom she labels as simple “brokers” looking to make a few extra dollars under people’s noses. Needing to keep her quiet, and to lend some legitimacy to the sale (which So-young is still okay with), the brokers decide to cut her in on the deal.
Purely based on this introductory premise, Kore-eda has laid a field filled with moral quandaries. Is it right to break the law and sell a child if it means they will potentially have a better life? Who is worse, the mother that disposes of the baby, or the people that sell the child? Who’s responsible for the child once the mother has disowned them?
Kore-eda doesn’t stop there, as the plot thickens those arguments with supporting details and rationalizations from each character. So-young is revealed to have a troubled past, lending some credibility to the usual selfish act of giving up your child. Sang-hyun has had run-ins with the law, and Dong-soo grew up in a run-down orphanage where the chances of being adopted are slim to none.
But even with all these character developments that should create an ethically questionable story, Kore-eda’s direction never makes you feel as if any of this is wrong or dangerous. Throughout the film, the gang is being tailed by two female police officers looking to catch them in the act. That danger of being caught never comes to the surface, with the cops being more of a humorous nuisance than a threat.
Similar to his previous Cannes entry, Shoplifters, Kore-eda does make plenty of time to instill lessons on how we don’t often get to choose the family we have. A direct reference to Paul Thomas Anderson’s mosaic Magnolia, tells all how the best-laid plans never truly turn out the way we envision. Even though each character may have their agenda behind the act, their shared journey is what binds them together. Dong-soo and So-young’s symbolic journey atop a Ferris wheel, coupled with the ivory keys of Jung Jae-il, make for a tear-inducing moment.
With a lighter tone and more melodrama, Broker doesn’t contain the precision of Kore-eda’s previous works. But that lightness makes for an accessible and emotionally rewarding experience.