Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of the great contemporary masters of filmmaking. Works such as Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2018, and Like Father, Like Son, which garnered the Jury Prize in 2013, are evidence of his mastery. So there was a lot of excitement at the prospect of seeing his latest film in Cannes. Sadly, Broker not only does not live up to our expectations, but it also positively shatters them. Perhaps the reason for this disappointment can be found in the film’s language: set in South Korea and in Korean, this is the Japanese director’s second foray into foreign-language film, following his substandard The Truth. Maybe Kore-eda simply doesn’t travel well.
Broker is a tale about abandoned babies, baby trafficking, adoption and families. A common theme Kore-eda returns to is the subject of what family really means. As Shoplifters so brilliantly showed, sometimes ad-hoc families cobbled together from the unlikeliest of individuals are the ones that work best. The director returns to this here, once again assembling a family before taking them on a journey. The brokers, the baby, its mother and an orphan head off on their haphazard road trip hotly pursued by two female coppers and a pair of thugs. The police officers want to catch the brokers and put them behind bars for baby trafficking. The thugs are after the baby, whose father is their dead gangster boss.
Yet the film is not all bad – it is Kore-eda, after all. The cinematography is gorgeous, thanks to Hong Kyung-pyo, who did such great work on Parasite. There are also fine performances all round, Kore-eda picking the cream of Korean actors. The two brokers are Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho – another Parasite alumni), who is his usual likeable self, and Dong-soo (Dong-won Gang). Doona Bae – probably best known to Western audiences from Cloud Atlas – is the policewoman desperate to make her arrest, while Lee Ji-eun plays So-young, the mother. All of them are convincing, or they would be if the story and screenplay hadn’t let them down. If Shoplifters had a few holes in its plot, Broker has gaping chasms. Kore-eda asks too much of his audience this time and he takes two long – so, so long – hours trying to convince us that this is a band of loveable rogues, when actually they are pretty despicable.
Kore-eda, usually so adept at depicting families – flawed and even unhappy ones – and at moving his audiences with his stories, has come a cropper in Korea.