The first of many sidenotes in Broker, a shallow Korean-language fling and rare dud, from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda comes in the opening minute. On a torrential rainy night in Busan, a young sex worker named So-young (Lee Ji-eun) carries her newborn to an abandoned church where a so-called “baby box” has been installed outside – a sort of hiding hatch a last resort for South Korea’s desperate mothers, since the first of its kind was built in Seoul in 2009.
Instead of putting her sleeping boy in the lighted cradle, which as a mod-con even has tinkling lullabies, So-Young puts him on the wet sidewalk next to the crate and just walks away. A couple of policewomen staking out the crime scene come to the baby’s aid, with Soo-jin (a grumpy Bae Doona) putting it in at least out of politeness. But the film later has no good answer other than the mother’s ambivalence about giving it away as to why she would leave her baby at the mercy of the elements rather than actually using the box.
When she comes back to find him, baby Woo-sung is illegally sold to potential adoptive parents (Gang Dong-won) by black market agents Sang-hyeon (Parasite’s main character Song Kang-ho) and his younger partner Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), who is a temp worker at the church. Sang-hyeon runs a laundry as a cover, owes money to gangsters, and goes about his business by getting Dong-soo to delete the footage from the CCTV monitoring the inside of the box. They then buy it from prospective parents, who run the gamut from suspicious to fake in the conception of this film.
This couple protests they’re helping everyone for starvation wages like Vera Drake’s after childbirth. A future involving the child’s birth mother is at the heart of the film at all times, and the mere suggestion that she had an abortion is aggressively dismissed as far worse than dumping him on the street. It is heavily implied that Soo-jin once made the first choice and that it ruined her life.
Make anything you want with it. Kore-eda’s screenplay tosses minor characters under buses between each stop, largely to settle in with the kind of makeshift family loved in his films, which in the best of them — say, The wonderful Shoplifters (2018) — triumphantly are detailed. All his usual strengths fail him here in a different culture, perhaps because the facade of venal cynicism that should be the film’s top layer is so easily scratched through. It doesn’t take long to dig for pathos, especially when one of the director’s sweetest scores hands over a scoop.
These are characters drawn in two thin dimensions – obviously less callous than they seem, “hiding” the open secrets that they are abandoned or broken. They are child traffickers with their hearts in the right place. There’s a well-worn romantic metaphor involving an umbrella that Rihanna could well complain about. Broker also features two murders of little consequence, and features a woefully miscast baby as an added distraction – the script keeps making a fuss about the poor boy’s weak eyebrows, which looked beyond bushy to me. Anemic and maudlin, this might be the Cannes competition’s biggest disappointment.
129 min. Screening at the Cannes Film Festival. A UK publication is TBC
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/broker-review-abandoned-babies-gangsters-metaphor-trite-even/ abandoned babies, gangsters and a metaphor so trite even Rihanna might blanch