On the occasion of him winning the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival for his film Shoplifters, I called Hirokazu Kore-eda “the Ron Howard of the international art house circuit.” The intervening years, and a look at Kore-eda’s latest, have done nothing to convince me that this comparison is inaccurate. Both are very skilled directors who deliver exactly what their audiences expect, and almost never anything more than that. Howard’s audience is more mainstream, so he gives them a bit more excitement: quips, special effects, movie stars giving speeches, and so on. Kore-eda’s audience, the international art house circuit, assure themselves that they are above such things, and so he withholds the more obvious indicators of audience pandering, giving his viewers strong movie actor performances, jokes that are amusing but never inspire true laughter, quiet scenes of emotional turmoil, artfully framed images of lovely landscapes and thoroughly decorated homes or hotel rooms. Kore-eda is, above all, tasteful.
Broker is a perfectly nice film about the formation of an unconventional family unit on a road trip. It features international arthouse stars like Song Kang-ho and Bae Doona, the former as the eponymous broker who sells unwanted children to parents who for one reason or another can’t or won’t legally adopt, the latter as the cop on Song’s trail as he and his partner (Gang Dong-won) attempt to sell just such an infant. Tagging along with the brokers is the child’s mother (Lee Ji-eun, also known as the singer IU), who initially abandoned her baby at a local orphanage but changed her mind and came back for him, only to find that Song and Gang had sidetracked him into their own illegal business. She goes along to make sure the child finds a good home, as well as to share in the profits. Along the way, traveling in a beat-up van from picturesque town to picturesque town across Korea, the three share meaningful thoughts and emotions about parenthood and abandonment. A visit to Gang’s old orphanage results in the addition of a new family member — a young soccer fan who stows away in the van — and thus the makeshift clan is complete.
This is all in the same territory as Shoplifters, and Kore-eda doesn’t find anything new to weave into the scenario. Bae, for a while, brings a prickly edge to her part, serving as a kind of chorus to pop up once a reel or so to remind us that these people are actually child traffickers. And there’s even talk of a murder or two and other criminal activity, but Kore-eda would never be so gauche as to actually display such unpleasantries. At least not in this kind of movie: he’s made darker films of course, his previous Bae Doona collaboration Air Doll, for example, taking a sick turn albeit one that’s to be expected in an ultimately classy riff on the exploitation film. Broker even throws in an explicit nod to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, another art house classic about the complex relationships between parents and children. Of course, not content to merely let Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” play on the soundtrack, Kore-eda has to underline this connection by having Bae hold her phone out in the middle of a conversation with her significant other and say “hey, it’s the song from that movie we watched!” Despite the best efforts of his actors, there’s just nothing subtle, nothing unexpected about Broker. It’s the kind of film where everyone always thinks of the children and things all work out for the best and everyone learns that families built on forgiveness and mutual self-sacrifice come in all shapes and sizes and love conquers all and even Bae’s hardened cop heart is melted by the adorable powers of the divine moppet.
Originally published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 3.