Boxes are left out for people to anonymously drop off their unwanted babies.
Broker is the latest film from Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda, probably the best known in the west for his Palme d’Or winning feature Shoplifters (2018), and stars Song Kang-ho, Gang Dong-won, and Lee Ji-eun.
The film follows Ha Sang-Hyeon (Song) and Dong-soo (Gang), two men running a scam centred around a local church’s baby box. Sang-hyeon takes babies left behind here and sells them on the black market in illegal adoptions, while Dong-soo, an employee at the church, assists him and deletes any incriminating security footage. We open the film on the pair running their scheme with a child left by young mother Moon So-young (Ji-eun). Complications arise when So-young comes back for her baby, later becoming involved in the pair’s exploits, and are further exacerbated by the advent of two police detectives trailing the trio every step of the way.
Kore-eda has had a glowing track record thus far in his career, but Broker feels like a misstep to this reviewer. The beginning raises no real doubts. From the outset the film looks excellent and uses its locations to brilliant effect, and throughout a good chunk of the first act the story feels genuine and emotionally affecting. However, it quickly loses steam. We lose any of the picture’s initial charm, quickly falling victim to repetitive, formulaic, and painfully sentimental filmmaking.
This only scratches the surface of the script’s issues. It moves from beat to beat, in the most typical A-B-C-D manner, feeling forced and uninspired. Most plot movements feel inorganic, yet also feel quite mundane and overly familiar. With these movements come physical, geographical movement, and that manages to disguise some of the flaws in the script, as Broker features fantastic settings and locations, utilising them well, but this disguise is far from airtight.
Kore-eda has truly stuffed the film with its cast of characters. Beyond the core group we never get to see any real humanity within them. He attempts to shed some light on the two detectives’ personalities, for example, but the script and cast list are so overloaded that any attention given to supporting characters (and by default the audience’s interest in them) is spread far too thin. This reaches its peak coming into the final act, in single fell swoops introducing us to new characters, introducing their various connections to multiple existing characters, and tying minor-ish plot twists around them. This is in vain, as we know nothing really about this character, nor have any reason to care, and have been immersed in a story for so long, not to mention one that hasn’t earned such reveals. For me, personally, it was the straw that broke the back of a very worn-out camel.
One last strike against the film is its musical score; mostly forgettable to the point of completely leaving memory upon exiting the theatre, except for a nostalgic, sentimentalist motif of twangy, softly plucked guitars, reminiscent of inoffensive, c-list 1960s folk music one might hear on a community radio station. It not only gets repetitive but does so mind numbingly quickly.
This is not to say, however, that Broker is all bad. I’ve mentioned the visual flair of the film, but the cast is excellent too, and unsurprisingly, given some of the pedigree on display. A particular standout is child actor Im Seung-doo, playing the young Hae-jin, a child from Dong-soo’s former orphanage who ends up as a stowaway on the brokers’ journey.
Another true highlight is a scene towards the film’s conclusion in which Dong-soo and So-young have a heartfelt conversation in a cable car that almost made sitting through this film’s problems worthwhile. It’s intimate, tender, raw and beautifully affecting.
Broker is not a perfect film by any stretch and could absolutely have used a script polish and a tighter edit, but there are diamonds in the rough, and fans of Kore-eda or the film’s Korean cast would probably benefit from seeing it. Be warned, though, that there may be some level of a slog involved in the viewing experience.
Broker is screening in cinemas throughout the U.K. now.