Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest feature, Broker, is ultimately a disappointment. It primarily falters because of its lack of characterization and unbelievability.
Named this generation’s Yasujirō Ozu by many (although I don’t personally partake in that sentiment), Hirokazu Kore-eda is a brilliant filmmaker who knows how to portray domestic melancholy in a humanistic way, unlike other directors might do with their theatrical ways. The stories he concuts feel tangible and grounded, which causes people to relate to them. It was a few years ago when the man himself won the Palme d’Or for his intelligent and thoughtful film, Shoplifters. He was a big name beforehand, but that movie brought a new light to him, for people to discover his past work and be aware of what he does next, like me. Nobody Knows and After Life are fascinating pieces of work that demonstrates his talents behind the camera and the effectiveness his way of storytelling has on the viewer. After a quick three-year roundabout, Kore-eda is back with Broker (his first film in South Korea), which can be seen as a “brother” of sorts to Shoplifters, since it tackles some of the same themes (family, desertion, adoption) and its expression is similar. However, it doesn’t come close to its greatness or thematic heft.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest work is quite an unfortunate misfire – a replay of his greatest hits but done in an unfulfilling manner with loads of syrupy dialogue and conveniences that lead to a vapid climax. Broker begins on a rainy night when a resentful mother, So-young (played by singer-songwriter IU, who is, by far, the best performer in the film), leaves her child (who’s only a couple of months old) in a baby box, a place where people can bring their newborn babies and abandon them in a safe place where they can be cared for. In the background, you can hear a simplistic piano score, which causes one to roll their eyes. Jung Jae-il (Parasite, Okja) is a great composer. The problem with those composition pieces is that they aren’t bad, but they are too on the nose and histrionic; they are often played after a melodramatic scene. So-young is being watched by two police officers (Doona Bae and Lee Joo-young) – one of them shaming her for leaving the child there – to see if they can catch people traffickers in action.
These officers have some suspicions over who is actually involved in these scenarios, taking infants, erasing the video footage, and selling them to anguished parents for a high price. The two main suspects in this “broker” scam are the church’s baby box employee Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) and a laundry man, Sang-hyun (the always great Song Kang-ho – who won the Cannes’ Best Actor Award for this film somehow). So-young is starting to have second thoughts about leaving the baby behind. However, after hearing how much money she can garner after selling it, she joins the criminals on a “road trip” to find a suitable pairing that can buy the newborn child.
Kore-eda wrote Broker as a drama-comedy road movie, which on paper, would seem fascinating because of the talent behind and in front of the camera: cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (Parasite, Burning, The Wailing), costume designer Choi Se-yeon, and the incredible cast of actors. Although it seems too Shoplifters-like narrative and thematic-wise, Broker can be considered a companion piece to said film – creating a duology of films that tackled broken households and the impact of abandonment in different stages of your life.
One of the film’s problems is that it doesn’t have the characterization and pathos that made Shoplifters a mesmerizing and emotional watch. Characterization is one of the most significant faults, because everyone is treated as a nice guy (a hero, perhaps), even the criminals. Since they are all treated as such, it takes away what would make them interesting – the contrast between So-young’s indecisiveness and the criminals, as well as the contradictory police officers chasing after them, which coincidentally soften their attitudes toward them and their offenses. It doesn’t seem like there would be no consequences since the evil is being captured with a smoother haze that unsharpens its melancholy. Kore-eda tries to comment on issues that are highly relevant today, like abortion and bodily autonomy. Still, it never quite reaches a satisfactory thematic point, keeping some restraint since the film’s emphasis is on orphans rather than mothers. Of course, as usual, there are moments of poignancy beautifully captured by Hong Kyung-pyo, which causes a bit of emotional attachment – the Ferris wheel scene, to be more specific.
There are other sequences where you see Broker’s potential, but, for the most part, it is faulty and creaky due to the forced conveniences that these characters go through, its reliance on comedic relief to cover moments where the narrative falters emotionally, and its lack of gracefulness and subtlety, which is present in plenty of his past features. What does this all lead to? Not much emotional payoff. We have seen Kore-eda make this type of film work before, so it disappoints even more when you see the lack of effort in its screenwriting. The improbabilities of the plot make almost every event quite ridiculous. As it transpires, it slowly loses its charm and develops a schmaltzy and cheesy sensation – a note on the lack of effect that its melodramatic backbone has. There’s also a subplot involving a detective story, which seems off-kilter with the rest of the picture, and it wouldn’t work no matter what direction the film takes.
Broker just doesn’t seem believable, neither narratively nor emotionally. And the worst thing of all is that it is dull and lulls you to sleep because you’re detached. It has its heart in the right place, and Kore-eda remains a great filmmaker, but this was a sheer disappointment, and an almost soulless film.
Broker premiered at TIFF on September 13, 2022, and will be released in US theaters by NEON on December 26. In the UK, the film will be released on February 3, 2023.