“Family isn’t a word…it’s a sentence”. So ran the tagline to The Royal Tenenbaums. For Hirokazu Kore-eda it could be argued that it’s a whole career. From Still Walking to the Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters, the Japanese auteur has spent the greater part of his career delineating the lines of attraction and repulsion, the dynamics of duty and care that make up families – both real and alternative.
Often, Kore-eda puts his ordinary heroes and antiheroes through extraordinary pressures and situations – such as Like Father, Like Son, where a mix-up in the maternity hospital leaves two families with the wrong kids – to test what can make and break a family. Broker is a similar test to destruction. Set in South Korea and featuring the work of Parasite cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo, the film begins with a torrential rainfall and new mother So-young (Lee Ji-eun) leaving her baby at a church baby box: a kind of letter box for unwanted children. The mother is being watched by two police officers, played by Doona Bae and Lee Joo-young, who are staking out the charity in the hope of catching people traffickers.
The officers’ suspicions are well-founded as employee Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) and laundry man Sang-hyun (Parasite lead Song Kang-ho) are taking babies and selling them on to desperate parents. The plot twists and turns as first So-young joins them having had second thoughts about leaving the baby and then having third thoughts when hearing the price a baby can fetch. Then the cops are on their tail. A brilliantly funny 10-year-old orphan stows away in the back of the van, and before you can say Shoplifters 2, an improvised quasi-family has been formed which, despite some major misbehaviour, somehow has won over our affection and backing.
Kore-eda can make this kind of film in his sleep, and one has the feeling that this is exactly how it has been done. Nothing else can explain the utter improbability of the plot and the characters. In making our heroes…well, heroes, they become stripped of any of the attributes which would make them credible criminals, or for that matter police officers. Everyone is likeable, and even the police melt as their surveillance of the criminals leads them to softening their attitudes. At this point, I don’t believe that the criminals ever committed crimes, the police ever detected them or any real consequences are going to ensue, beyond some sweet melancholy.
This is not to say that Broker is a bad film. Kore-eda doesn’t seem able to make a truly bad film. But it is a minor one. The take on abortion feels sketchy and with the focus on orphans rather than mothers, the burden seems to be implicitly shifted onto women and away from their own bodily autonomy. One particularly troublesome scene involves the new family which is seeking to buy the new baby having just suffered a still birth. In reaching for a humane moment, Kore-eda weirdly turns his characters un-human. It’s impossible not to be beguiled by the sweetness of the comedy, the skill of the performers and sheer craft of the film. But hopefully next time out Kore-eda will use it in the service of a plot which is more believable.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty