A leave from the essentially perfect Kore-eda formula, Broker fails to convince as it underwhelmingly forays into a convoluted, makeshift baby-selling family film
First, a word on Kore-eda and what I think is his essentially perfect formula
Hirokazu Kore-eda is an auteur. When I say the ‘essentially perfect Kore-eda formula’, I am referring exactly to the peregrination of his more typical masterpieces, of which I believe are essentially perfect — in my humble opinion, belonging to this catalogue are: ‘Shoplifters (2018)’, ‘After the Storm (2016)’, ‘Our Little Sister (2015)’, ‘Still Walking (2008)’, ‘Nobody Knows (2004)’ as a small sample size of his filmography, which consists only of good movies.
The internationally lauded Hirokazu Kore-eda is described as “the greatest active humanist in cinema”, a praise absolutely nothing short of deserved. Among my all-time favourites, I was first exposed to his work through the aforementioned catalogue of titles; slice-of-life, coming-of-age stories that are unpretentious, wholly contemplative, and wholly hearty. Above everything, his films are so full of warmth, yet never oblivious from proposing a rather bittersweet conclusion — cleverly analogous to life itself. Kore-eda’s films of familial stories do not necessarily aim to be sentimental, yet they always manage to overwhelm their viewers with certain melancholia.
Focusing on the mundane, the minutiae of the quotidian; honest portrayals of life as it ordinarily unfolds, most of his films are centred around Japanese familial relationships, and as I discovered, in this sense, are wonderfully quintessentially Japanese — but the magic is that it all… feels so familiar still. The ordinary becomes relatable and so its elegant, fragile magnification draws out empathy and invites pondering. A rather unconventional sense of entertainment whatever culture you yourself are immersed in. But Kore-eda’s films celebrate the fact that humanity is a language that everyone speaks, after all.
In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy wrote, ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’, while Julian Baggini wrote inversely, ‘unhappy families are characterised by either conflict or tension, or emotional sterility beneath a surface of calm. Happy families, however, come in many sorts’. I have always believed that in Kore-eda’s films, he is wise enough to posit a balanced outlook, somewhere in between these two conflicting thoughts, that happy and unhappy families are both alike and unlike one another, all at once. Such is the feeling conveyed through his depictions of families; man’s nature is altogether so inscrutable, yet equally just as penetrable.
And so it all becomes clear when you consider that Kore-eda trained as a documentary filmmaker. Shomin-geki (庶民劇), literally ‘common people drama’ (or in Japanese the correct word for this genre is shōshimin-eiga [小市民 映画], literally lower middle-class film) finds moments that appear insignificant — commonplace occurrences and rituals that we take for granted on a universal scale — but are clearly so meaningful when a little weight of thought is added onto them. Dramatic tension and conflict are furthest away from its modes of communication. There is no crescendo that comes crashing down at the end. These films are more about the importance of any old ‘you and me’, where Kore-eda stands out in that his films are something in the middle, a documentary style but with a fictional storyline. Realism in the sense of the style, the mundane leads us to a greater truth within the stories that he wishes to tell. As he told one interviewer, ‘I’m not interested in creating heroes, superheroes, or antiheroes. I simply want to look at people as they are’.
This rejection of melodrama positively exudes respect for its audience. ‘He understands that he cannot satisfy us with a sort of direct statement, maudlin display, simplistic causality or unrealistic marionette work. He paints his picture with not only the fewest possible brushstrokes but the most evocative ones, applied with impossible attentiveness and concentration. The story develops not through a tennis ball machine’s thudding volley of plot points but through meticulously selected and crafted impressions, single curves that imply sprawling mountain ranges.’ — Colin Marshall on Kore-eda’s Maborosi (1995).
But not all of Kore-eda’s works are entirely removed from the realm of realism. ‘After Life (1998)’, ‘Air Doll (2009’), ‘I Wish (2011)’ for instance, all have plots set up to entice the more peculiar, wishful parts of the imagination. After Life deals with arbiters of memories in the afterlife, Air Doll imagines an inflatable sex doll that develops a soul and falls in love with a video store clerk, and I Wish builds castles in the air on a rumour that the new bullet trains will precipitate a wish-granting miracle when they pass each other at top speed. They are all good films, and by no means am I suggesting that Kore-eda should only make films with less stated storylines, but I have to put on pedestal films of his that have the simplest of plots; they reduce each and every unnecessary scenes, every unnecessary noise, boiling the message right to its very essence. In those films of his, the minimal quietness provides an abundance of subtleties affording introspection — at the heart of a very distinct Kore-eda film experience.
Broker too peels away from a most ordinary story into the fundamentally silly. And much to its own detriment, it only tangles itself in its silliness. The story follows a neighbourhood laundrette owner, Ha Seong-hyeon (played by Song Kang-ho, who won the Cannes’ Best Actor award for his performance) and his right-hand friend Dong-soo (played by Gang Dong-won). This rather nondescript duo operates an illegal business: they are baby brokers, selling abandoned babies to willing buyers on the adoption black market. Where do they find the babies from? Well, there is a ‘baby box’ at the local church where the pair volunteers – an existence as controversial as it is precious – a kind of poignant convenience that apparently exists in South Korea and minorly in some other countries in the world. This hatch is monitored by the partners in crime and from there, they steal the babies to pilot their underground trade. This little box, no more than one metre in width, is nestled near the church’s front entrance wall. It is wrapped in metal, dimly lit by a warm yellowish light with a basket cushioned on the inside. Truly a last resort fixture, you could imagine the physical and emotional gravity of leaving one’s baby in such a sterile and unfriendly place.
Or so you would hope to think. On a cold, harsh rainy night, Moon So-young (played by Lee Ji-eun/IU) decides to leave her newborn baby in the hatch. Or to state more accurately, rather than placing her sleeping boy inside the lit crib, which even has tinkling lullabies as a mod con, So-young lays him down on the wet pavement next to the box. We all have our own reasons after all, do we not? She very quickly has a change of heart though, as So-young goes back into the church’s nursery to get her baby back just a day later, somehow learning of Seong-hyeon and Dong-soo’s illegal operation in the process. Somehow as well, she manages to convince them to let her in on it – forming an unlikely bunch, setting off on an unlikely baby-delivery road trip – because all she wants to do is to interview her baby’s potential buyers. An odd sense of responsibility indeed. We all, have our own reasons after all…do we not?
From thereafter it becomes immediately clear that here Kore-eda once again ventures into the ‘unexpected family’, a common theme throughout his work that raises critical questions and reflections on what exactly a family is, and that they are far more complex than just ‘the household you were born into’ nor even ‘the people who cared for and raised you’ — here too, the grey in-between is always the wisest answer. This is his strongest trope.
The road-trip group, which expands into four members when adorable little Hae-jin (played by Im Seung-soo) joins them after hiding in the back of their van, are trailed by a pair of detectives, Soo-jin (played by Bae Doona) and detective Lee (played by Lee Joo-young). The detectives practically have all the evidence they need to make an arrest, but they do not operate by the book and instead choose to observe longer. Not investigating — observing, really, going as far as setting them up with fake buyers in order to ‘catch them in the act’. Of course, they learn more about the moralities of these ‘criminals’ than they had initially anticipated. So too do we, the viewers, who are presented with what would be uncommendable characters ‘in the real world’. And of course, as these detectives watch over the group from a distance, they too become part of an extended family.
Branding the story as ‘silly’ is not an overstated slight. In the real world, the people running such a nauseating scam would definitely be loathsome individuals. Again however, reaching into the void of the grey area, Kore-eda made sure to portray criminals Seong-hyeon and Dong-soo as kind-hearted romantics-at-heart in the most unambiguous manner: they care for the baby with the utmost compassion and at the same time, are full of consideration for So-young who develops from an extremely reluctant, extremely aloof figure into a more honest character garnering our sympathies. The pair justify their operations as ‘doing the world a service by sidestepping bureaucracy and dreary orphanage care by getting the babies quickly to adoptive parents and moreover handing over most of the fee to the mother’.
The aching issue with this naivety in the film is that it sets up too many difficult, messy unanswered questions, drawing everything in one or two dimensions only. Everything is done with rather imprecise strokes in its 129 minutes of runtime. So-young, the young mother who turns out to have a much darker preface to things, doesn’t convince us of her lack of remorse, whilst her clearly nonexistent motherhood-prowess isn’t redeemed in any other way. She justified herself by suggesting that “I do not want to get attached to the baby”. She just wants to help the pair find a worthy buyer, ultimately we are reminded. Kore-eda could surely be implying that not everyone, unfortunately, goes on to redeem themselves even when presented with the opportunity. But in such a setup, it feels like a huge miss. And what about abortion? Detective Soo-jin is repeatedly quoted with ‘don’t have a baby if you are going to abandon it’. Perhaps these issues are too serious in the real world to be given this easygoing treatment. Too little space is afforded to these reflections, uncharacteristic of Kore-eda’s usual quietness.
To add on top of the challenging entanglements, the trailing, stalking detectives felt like minor narrative pieces in the grand scheme of things. Their parts in the story were merely enablers of many impossible arcs between the characters, as well as providing a safety net for the film’s conclusion. So too felt like Dong-soo, was he merely a one-dimensional device to depict an abandoned child who was raised in foster care?
For all intents and purposes, this is a South Korean movie. Set, portrayed, and felt by Koreans. Of course, he has worked with Korean actors before (like Bae Doona who starred as the inflatable doll in Air Doll) but Broker is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first venture into Korean cinema. ‘Quintessentially Japanese’ were my earlier words of choice for his previous body of work. They are of a globally unbounded familiarity, but not necessarily of a globally unbounded context. The ability to use cultural conditions to empower a message has been demonstrated masterfully by Kore-eda time and time again, but not so much here in Broker: I obviously cannot really fault him for that, but so there is a clear room for exploration and improvement in his Korean-ness of things (and I am not Korean nor do I have any ties to South Korea) but you can tell, I’m sure of it. All of Kore-eda’s hallmark efficacies fail him in a different culture here, perhaps because the veneer of venal cynicism that ought to be the film’s top layer is so easy to scratch through.
Broker moved at an unrecognisable pace, with its wealth of pressing questions left to the recklessness of the unspoken air. It makes use of the trite technique whereby one character confesses about something only when under the interference of a loud noise coming from an overpowering, passing train, or embarrassingly getting everyone to say ‘thank you for being born’ to each other — the magnanimous mantra intended to be the film’s most gut-wrenching moment — only with the lights off, eyes closed or emptily fixed onto the ceiling.
Broker made very little way into making its messiness convincing. For any of its characters, there is no sense of having embarked on a life-changing journey. Sure enough, we are told at the end that their lives were changed, but the stream of events in the story limits it to a rather inconsequential viewing. If we don’t believe their choices or emotions (which I certainly didn’t) the entire film falls apart, and while I may have been betrayed by my own expectations stemming from Kore-eda’s refined subtlety, a little more borrowing from his own ‘perfect formula’ could be the only answer that I can think of.