Cannes favourite Hirokazu Kore-eda, who won the 2018 Palme d’Or for Shoplifters, has returned to the Cote d’Azur-set film festival with another winner, titled Broker. The film marks the Japanese filmmaker’s first venture into South Korean cinema, and continues on from his previous feature, The Truth, which was also a foreign production, set in France and starring Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. Broker stars South Korea’s Song Kang-Ho, of Parasite and Memories of Murder fame, Train to Busan: Peninsula’s Gang Dong-won and K-pop star Lee Ji-eun, better known as IU to her fans.
The story begins with new mother, So-young (Lee Ji-eun), dropping off her infant child at a baby box. Things kick off as a set of female police officers happen to be surveying the baby box for reasons, at the time, unknown. The two are suspicious of the operations happening in the church that is behind the baby box, so they keep tabs on the movements of its workers. What happens next is morally questionable as it’s revealed that Sang-hyun (Song Kang-Ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-Won) have taken the baby and intend to traffick him to the highest bidder. The side-operation that they have going is justified by them as they only take babies with no connection to their birth parents, most drop-offs at the baby box are left with notes that include contact details. However, this is not the case for So-young’s baby boy. After a while of being separated from her child, So-young returns to the drop-off point only to find out about Sang-hyun and Dong-soo’s plan to sell him and gets in on the deal, they promise he will sell for around 10 million won.
Kore-eda’s latest tells a sensitive story about chosen family and the moral ambiguities of a mother being in on the monetary transaction of her own child. It is a difficult story to tell, so it takes a filmmaker as sensitive and acutely conscious of his choices to get such a story right. The philosophical, moral and legal grounds that are dealt with make way for an endlessly fascinating narrative as one becomes enchanted in the newfound family’s every move. Kora-eda makes the audience suspend judgements on the characters’ decisions as they all, in the end, have a reason for conducting such an operation. It is just the right amount of empathetic, whilst also questioning their ethics at every turn. The questioning is primarily through Bae Doona and Lee Joo-Young’s police officers, who constantly tail the family and establish contact with the young mother, who is also a suspect of a murder investigation. Things get, from the outside, quite complicated, but Kore-eda tells it with such clarity that it’s easy to grasp.
Leading the bittersweet, tender picture is the ever-reliable Song Kang-ho, who delivers an endearing performance of great compassion. Gang Dong-won plays his partner in crime, again, delivering the nuance that Kore-eda orders. But it is K-pop singer-turned actor Lee Ji-eun who leads the ensemble down its path of brilliance as she performs her heart out, she is the soul of the film. The rest of the supporting cast are just as reliably great with everyone delivery their fair share of excellence to prop up the events on-screen.
One of the most remarkable features of Broker is the film’s cinematography, shot by Parasite’s Hong Kyung-pyo. The way that Kyung-pyo uses light makes for a quietly tender experience, hitting the mise-en-scène in naturalistic way. The sequences set in darkness as the street lights, of the South Korean cities they visit, streak the outline of people’s faces are notably vivid in my memory. Additionally, Bae Doona has a stand-out and extremely poignant scene midway through the film. It acts as a great showcase for Kyung-pyo’s visuals, as well as Doona’s performance. It is a beautiful and impactful watch, the cinematography adds a whole extra dimension of beauty as it immerses one in Kore-eda’s delicate world.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s South Korean debut is a deeply moving, empathetic portrait of familial and moral issues. It shows both sides of the story with mothers who are willingly and personally need to let go of their child and those who are seeking to adopt. But a lovely quote from the film that rings true to all the character, by the end, no matter their position is “thank you for being born,” as each character tells each other. The Cannes-premiering film is one of Kore-eda’s best and is surely in the running for this year’s Palme d’Or. It’s a gorgeous film.
This review is from the Cannes Film Festival. NEON will release Broker in the U.S.