Hirokazu Kore-eda is currently one of the most talented and effective directors of feature film drama in the world, and a good measure of that talent is the fact that such claims are not even controversial. His 2018 drama Shoplifters, which followed a makeshift family of thieves and outsiders, won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. Between 2015 and 2018, Kore-eda’s films won the Japan Academy Prize for Best Picture three out of four years (Shoplifters again, plus The Third Murder and Our Little Sister). Within Japanese cinema he is a contemporary director to be mentioned in the same rarefied breath as legends Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse. What is more, he deserves to be. When the proverbial book is written on Japanese film, Kore-eda is all but guaranteed a chapter of his own.
His status has been earned over time, of course, with his first dramatic feature (Maborosi) coming out in 1995. More recently he has been stretching his horizons post-Shoplifters; first with the French production The Truth (2019), starring Ethan Hawke and Juliette Binoche, and now with Broker (2022), his first Korean-language work.
The film follows So-young (Lee Ji-eun), who abandons her own baby outside a Busan church. The baby is recovered – illegally – by dry cleaner Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) and his partner Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), who then approach So-young for her to help sell her unwanted infant to the highest bidder.
With a story based around child trafficking, it is understandable to expect Broker would be a miserable, humourless picture. Instead the film positively glows with warmth and light comedy, mixed in among the serious drama and the tense cat-and-mouse game played between Sang-hyeon and the police officers already on his tail. It strikes a superb balance, telling a very human story with flawed characters, moral ambiguity, and emotional honesty. It is no surprise that Kore-eda is compared so often to those earlier Japanese masters – he has the same social concerns that they do, and expresses them with equal effectiveness.
Broker is, all in all, a film about family: how they break, how they form, how they mend, and critically how we make family with the people we befriend over the years. It is a theme that has dominated Kore-eda’s career, and that is both a strength – he is very, very good at it – and a weakness – since in many respects Broker appears a softer retread of Shoplifters. It does not match that earlier film for impact or emotional effect, but it is a closely-run race.
The film boasts a fabulous cast in top form: Song Kang-ho is an international favourite, but there is particularly strong work performed here by Lee Ji-eun and particularly Bae Doona – formerly of Kore-eda’s Air Doll (2009) – as Soo-jin, a police detective doggedly trailing the criminals. It all looks tremendous as well, taking good advantage of both its southern Korean setting and its Korean cinematographer Hong Kyung-po (Parasite, The Wailing).
This is one of the most outstanding feature films for 2022 so far. It showcases realistic characters making unexpected choices, and expressing complex opinions, and interacting with one another in a manner that refuses to make judgements of them. Nobody is entirely bad, nor is anyone wholly good-hearted. As with the best of Kore-eda’s work, it finds itself a niche in the margins, and enchants.
Broker is currently screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and opens in Australian cinemas later in 2022. Click here for more information.