A typical Kore-eda ‘family’ has fun at the fair

There is a group of international critics who think that Broker is a ‘misfire’. A well-known British critic has deemed it ‘fundamentally silly’. The majority of critics are much more positive and the lead actor in the film, Song Kang-ho, won the Cannes acting prize for his performance in the film. But the dissenting critics simply argue that Kore-eda Hirokazu has now become a critics’ darling and many reviewers now don’t want to be seen as ‘missing the point’. Two of my friends who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves ‘cinephiles’ both told me that they were bowled over by the film and stunned by the ending. What should we make of this?

Song Kang-ho as Ha Sang-hyun won the acting prize at Cannes

I’ve seen all of Kore-eda’s fifteen cinema features and one of his earlier TV documentaries. That doesn’t necessarily make me an expert but it does mean I can usually have some idea where he is going with a particular story. I’m also aware that he has made all sorts of films and that although many of his films feature unusual ‘family groups’ the stories, aesthetics and generic repertoires are sometimes very different. In Broker, he cast Doona Bae as a detective and in her only other role for him she played a sex-doll who ‘comes to life’ in Air Doll (Japan 2009) and very good she was too. Broker, according to Kore-eda himself, is a film initially inspired by his research into adoption during his preparation for Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013) and is paired in his own mind with Shoplifters (Japan 2018).

Doona Bae as the dogged lead detective Su-jin

The big difference with Broker is that it is a South Korean film and as such the second non-Japanese language cinema film that Kore-eda has made, the first being The Truth (France-Japan 2019). South Korea is certainly much closer to Japan in many ways: it also offers the chance of working with the great Song Kang-ho as well as Doona Bae. The title is a little bit of a tease. It refers to the illegal trade in babies for adoption, but it’s original Korean title was Baby, Box, Broker – implying that its focus is wider than just the two men who steal a baby. The ‘brokers’ here are a couple of Korean men in rather desperate financial straits played by Song and Kang Don-won as Ha Sang-hyun and Dong-soo respectively. They work in a laundry and clothes-mending business on its last legs. Dong-soo also volunteers part-time for a church in Busan that provides a ‘Baby Box’, an anonymous service in which mothers can leave the babies they are unable to bring up themselves. Dong-soo is able to edit the security camera which records donations to the box. Babies that are left without any indication that the mother will return then offer the chance for the brokers to seize a baby and sell it on to wealthy parents seeking an infant. The ‘inciting incident’ in this case occurs in the first sequence when a baby is left in the box by Moon So-young (played by K-pop singer/actress Lee Ji-eun). The men steal the baby but there are two police officers on a stake-out attempting to catch them. Moon So-young tracks down the brokers and eventually decides to join them in finding a buyer for her child. Later we will discover that she has mixed emotions about this and mixed motives. The two cops, both women, have been trailing So-young and they will track the road trip – it is essential that they arrest the brokers at the point when money changes hands. But do they become too involved in this case?

The brokers discover their stowaway Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo)

This set-up will eventually lead us into a narrative which seemingly combines a criminal investigation by the two cops, a road trip for the now trio of brokers from Busan across the country to Incheon and eventually a form of family melodrama with both comic and more severe criminal undertones. I would argue that the wide range of genre elements is kept in careful balance by Kore-eda, though it is true that he himself wasn’t sure how to end the film. The final version has a surprising ending. I’m struggling to remember all the details but then it is that kind of film. The plotting does have some loose ends but overall I found it worked. I’m interested that many of the reviews I’ve read don’t mention the orphanage that the brokers visit. It turns out that Dong-soo was raised in an orphanage and that the brokers have a strong connection to this particular institution which is also short of funds. We realise that some children are less likely to be adopted because of looks associated with ethnic differences. It’s worth making two points here. South Korea has a growing Chinese minority (some of whom are Chinese-Koreans who have returned) as well as smaller communities from other East/South East Asian countries. The demographics of the country are extreme in international terms with the lowest birthrate in the world recorded in recent years and without migration the population will actually decline. Kore-eda is targeting a fundamental social issue in the country – a lack of babies as well as significant income/wealth inequalities. In the narrative, the brokers discover a stowaway when they leave the orphanage. This is Hae-jin, a young boy who knows the brokers from previous visits. It now means that there is a familiar Kore-eda ‘family’ on the road together, the two men, the young mother, the baby and the boy.

Ready to negotiate a trade, the brokers in Incheon

The brokers are tracked by both the police and by gangsters from Busan. The gangsters provide the darker side of the story and they seem to have reasons to follow both the two brokers and So-young. There is also something like a ‘procedural’ aspect to the parts of the narrative covering the negotiations for the sale of the child. We soon realise that both Sang-hyun and Dong-soo are not generic types as ‘baby traffickers’. They both have emotional intelligence and what might be seen as useful knowledge for their trade. During one set of negotiations Dong-soo exposes would-be purchasers as fake, when he tricks them with questions about fertility treatments. Kore-eda fans know that his stories are often about ‘invisible’ and ‘marginal’ people in society who find relief from the pressures of society in small family-like groups. We know he will depict them with humanity, generosity and warmth, while at the same time offering us not a solution to a particular problem, but simply a chance to think about it with a new perspective.

Despite the carping of some critics, especially those who see a director who has appeared several times at Cannes as definitely ‘arthouse’, Broker has been a massive popular success. Kore-eda’s films often open at the top of the box office charts in Japan and this one also opened at the top of the charts in South Korea.. The cinema where I saw it in the UK had been playing the film for a month. It was only in a very small screen but it was sold out. The critical response reminds me of that for Like Father, Like Son – “too sentimental” for arthouse critics. Stephen Spielberg threatened to re-make that film in the US. It hasn’t happened so far. I hope Kore-eda remains a popular filmmaker in East Asia and Western audiences get to enjoy his films for what they are and not what critics think they should or shouldn’t be.

The road (and rail) trip offers views of South Korea

The technical credits on the film are very good as I would expect on a South Korean film and all the performances are effective. Kang Don-won as Dong-soo is very good  and I understand is a leading star actor across popular South Korean cinema and Lee Ji-eun is another good example of the success of East Asian pop stars in cinema drama roles. The music is also a feature and the score is by Jung Jae-il, known for his work on Paradise and Squid Game. Hong Kyung-pyo has a similar pedigree as a cinematographer with films by Bong Joon Ho and other top directors in his credits. Broker is definitely a film to catch and most of Kore-eda Hirokazu’s films are covered on this blog via this page. Here’s the Australian trailer for Broker: