Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker Enters the Gray World of the Black Market

Five years after winning the Palme d’Or for Shoplifters, the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is back on the Croisette with his latest film, the South Korea-set Broker, which, very much like Shoplifters, concerns foundling children and cobbled together families living on the outskirts of the law. Broker premiered on the second-to-last day of screenings here at the festival, and it proves well worth the wait. Gentle, sad, and funny in a just-shy-of-cutesy way, Broker continues Kore-eda’s tradition of handling tough subject matter with a light touch.

The film’s title refers to an illegal profession: the black market selling of babies, done to circumvent the bureaucratic and financial headaches of legal adoption. The film opens on a young woman, So-young (Lee Ji Eun), as she leaves her baby in front of a Busan church’s so-called “baby box,” where unwilling or unable mothers may anonymously leave their children in the care of the church. Most of those kids end up in orphanages, awaiting adoptions that may never come. So-young’s baby, Woo-sung, has a different fate in store.

He’s intercepted by two baby brokers: debt-ridden dry cleaner Sang-hyun (Song Kang Ho) and his younger partner, Dong-soo (Gang Dong Wan), who was himself an orphan. What they’re doing is deeply illegal, and they must do shifty things in order to carry out their operation. But there’s a ribbon of genuine altruism in their motivation, too. They’d rather see babies immediately put in the care of parents rather than becoming wards of the state for some unknown period of time. They’re doing good, sort of, they rationalize to themselves. Unbeknownst to them, a flinty cop, Su-jin (Doona Bae), and her partner are on their trail, a slow cat-and-mouse chase that carries this cast of characters—all of them aching in one way or another—on something of a road trip across Korea.

One can imagine this setup in an American indie and almost hear the creaky aphorisms about parenthood and childhood, the overly precocious dialogue written for child actors, the squicky moral lessons. But Kore-eda is a more modest, more thoughtful filmmaker than that. He somewhat miraculously keeps Broker from tipping into quirky sentimentality, though that potential is rife throughout. There’s even a cute little soccer-obsessed orphan boy who joins Sang-hyn, Dong-soo, and So-young on their journey to sell the baby and somehow he only adds more liveliness and bonhomie to the proceedings.

This is certainly an interesting time in American civic life to sit and watch a movie about babies in which abortion is only mentioned a few times, and usually in grave tones. There are moments in Broker when I thought I might have detected the faintest glint of a conservative streak in the filmmaking, a moral outlook that shames unprepared mothers. Characters do express things like that in the film, but Kore-eda, in the end, drives home a simple but important point: these matters are complex and there are really no right answers beyond doing what is as best as can be for all people involved.

Just as in Shoplifters, there is a bittersweet resolution in Broker, but not one that is in any way tidy. Hearts have broken, lives have been altered. It’s in that messiness, in Kore-eda’s allowance for and understanding of it, that the film finds its true empathy. Bromides and pat conclusions would be too smarmy or flippant, dismissive of the finely textured characters Kore-eda has rendered on screen.

The film is full of wonderful detail, from the parade of meals chowed down by Su-jin while on stakeout to a surprising and poignant scene that evokes, of all the movies that could be evoked, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Kissed by Kore-eda’s warm visuals, the cast works in lovely harmony, credibly playing weary people struggling toward the right thing to do. Bae is especially magnetic in her supporting role—I’d happily watch a whole series about her no-nonsense detective.

Perhaps I was too glamored by the softness and kindness of Kore-eda’s approach to fairly examine that slight strain of stern moralizing I detected here and there in the film. Maybe these issues are too serious in the real world to be given this shaggy, easygoing treatment. But based on my one viewing, Broker is one of the highlights of this year’s Cannes. It’s a crowd-pleaser that prods those crowds to think, to consider the many teeming lives of others, as they chuckle and sigh along.

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