Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 27, 2022 7:57 pm 
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Meandering tale of illegal adoption gang is a Kore-eda misfire

Hirokazu Kore-eda, one of a tiny number of Japan's most important living directors, is known for his films pertaining to children, to parenting, to adoption, to care, and to the ways makeshift families are formed in the absence of natural ones. These films have had, and may deserve, a lot of attention, but for me most of them dwindle in significance compared to his masterpiece in this genre, the 2004 Nobody Knows, a shattering study of young siblings abandoned by an irresponsible young mother to fend for themselves in an apartment. Kore-eda's films are often touching, and his varied takes on makeshift families make an interesting study. The recent Palme d'Or-winning 2018 Shoplifters about a Dickensian fake "family" of crooks, is outstanding. Other Kore-eda films I've reviewed are Still Walking (2009), a family drama inviting comparison with Ozu (always a problem, because he doesn't measure up; he prefers comparison with Mikio Naruse). There is also I Wish (2011), a very touching piece about boys with inadequate parents - but not as bad as the mother in Nobody Knows. The Third Murder (2017) is a lesser effort, a tangled legal drama and investigation of guilt whose muddle is a bit like the new film's. Kore-eda turns them out, along with TV directing. It's not all masterful. And so we come to Broker.

Broker, focused on a baby and people trying to find outside-the-sysem adoptive parents for it for their own profit, is one of the least successful of Kore-eda's child-related efforts. The action meanders, and so does the tone. It is hard even to see at times what is going on. This is Kore-eda's second film in a row set outside Japan following 2019's La Vérité, filmed in France. Broker takes place in Korea, where there is a system of "boxes" at churches for mothers who can't cope to leave off their newborn babies.

A pretty young waif called Soyoung (singer Ji-eun Lee) leaves her newly born at the site of a church box. A couple of men appear who make a practice of disabling the security camera and stealing these babies to sell them to adoptive parents outside the legal system. The elder of these individuals, Sang-hyeon, is played by Song Kang-ho, Korea's most notable actor, who anchors the film and at moments almost saves it. The mother comes back, having second thoughts, and encounters the men who have taken hold of her baby. When she learns how much they may sell it for, she changes her mind about taking it back, thinking to share the profits. She joins up with them in a meandering, unsuccessful trip meeting with perspective parents around the country. Meanwhile, two women police detectives are following them. These people, with the baby constantly in tow, can be seen as yet another, particularly far-fetched, makeshift family, with complicated emerging backstories like the characters in Parasite.

But if Kore-eda sees this as a charming, amusing, heartwarming tale he is sadly mistaken. As Ben Konigsberg wrote on at the Cannes debut, these characters are "at best mercenary and dangerous." He adds that while Broker "might have played well as a thriller" (though one may question that), it's "a poor fit" for one of the director's "ostensibly kindhearted dramas." Peter Bradshaw also saw the film at Cannes and in his Guardian review found it "fundamentally silly," with "tiringly shallow characterization" and "broad streaks of crime-drama intrigue" that merely "underline the fact that not a single word" of the film is "believable."

When so many critics admire this film, it feels as though it's Kore-eda's reputation that carries him along. The BBC reviewer Nicholas Barber tackles the film's tangled, meandering action, the way needless complications multiply and the point keeps disappearing, and is untroubled, finding Broker "one of the year's most delightful films" and concluding it's "so elegantly plotted that it never seems contrived." No, it doesn't seem contrived: it seems thrown together haphazardly. Only the implausible conclusion is clearly contrived.

Also starring Gang Dong-won, Bae Doona, Lee Ji-eun, and Lee Joo-young with cinematography by Hong Kyung-pyo. Editing by Kore-eda himself as usual, which Derek Elley once said was why his films were too long. This one definitely could have used tightening up.

Broker (Korean: 브로커) 129 mins., debuted May 26, 2022 at Cannes in Competition, wining Best Actor for Song Kang-ho and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury for Kore-eda; showing at over 40 international and US festivals thereafter. Limited US theatrical release (New York City) begins Dec. 26, 2022. Metacritic rating: 76%.

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