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In Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 masterpiece “Magnolia,” there is a scene in which his network of lonely souls gently, then suddenly, burst into song. Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Tom Cruise, John C. Reilly and all the others stare out into the night and try and make sense of their desperate lives as they mouth the lyrics to Aimee Mann’s aching “Wise Up.” The scene comes out of nowhere, but, like so many of the best parts about that film, and about all the best films, it is simply a thing that happens. You go with it.
“Wise Up” plays through a car radio on a rainy evening in policewoman Su-jin’s (Doona Bae) car in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s bittersweet and complex family drama “Broker.” Mann’s timbre is unmistakable, and the “Magnolia” reference is acknowledged by this lonely cop trying to reach out to her own disconnected loved one at the end of the line, making small talk about the film’s scene and acknowledging “it doesn’t really make sense” while she waits for her job to finally give her the closure she needs from her own past demons. “Broker” does make sense, but this heartfelt nod to one of cinema’s most devastating renderings of the implosion of family structures and the extreme measures we take to forgive, to grow, to heal and to love, makes all the dots connect beautifully.
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It’s not particularly uncharted waters for Kore-eda, who returns to Cannes after winning the 2018 Palme d’Or for the wondrous “Shoplifters” with a story that grapples with pretty similar existential and emotional reckonings. The nuclear family is over, long live the new clan. Where Kore-eda’s previous film found tenderness in a rag-tag gang of thieves learning how to take care of each other as they rob everyone else, “Broker” follows a couple of child traffickers who take a runaway young mother under their wing, and set out on the road to sell her baby for the best price while learning how to forgive their parents and learn from our children as they deconstruct and lovingly redefine the meaning of family once more.
The execution of this premise is, somehow, miraculous in its sensitivity, asking questions about issues of ethics, of choice, of money, and murder, and family, and how to find love in all this sorry mess. No answers are given — Kore-eda is an empath but has never been a utopian, rarely one for an incredible happy ending. There’s an astonishing sympathy for the unforgivable decisions we make, a patience for all the strange journeys you have to take in order to shake off the resentment passed down by generations. And, somehow, the filmmaker always finds a way to see light in it all. It’s “Little Miss Sunshine” by way of “Juno” narratively, but then there’s so much more that escapes comparison, as no other filmmaker could balance the sticky moral questions that color the film quite like Hirokazu Kore-eda.
He’s never been in better company with these actors, as “Parasite” patriarch Song Kang-ho leads the baby boxing operation as trafficker Sang-hyeon, a middle-aged man who can’t figure out the launderette he claims he owns but knows exactly what Woo-sung, the son of young mother So-young (K-Pop star Lee Ji Eun, better known as IU, a welcome surprise with a layered performance), deserves as they cart him around the country and try to convince people his eyebrows really aren’t that bad. Sang-hyeon works with Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won, often sweet beneath his bitterness), a well-intentioned young man with a chip on his shoulder after being abandoned himself as a kid, with a promise from his mother that “she’d be back.” As he tells So-young, only one in 40 who say that ever do.
Like with “Shoplifters,” much of the charm of “Broker” comes from the impressive number of unexpected people saying, and doing, wildly unexpected things. After a brief visit to the orphanage to suss out a potential family for Woo-sung (planted by Su-jin and her colleague Lee, giving the game away with insufficient knowledge about fertility treatments) Sang-hyeon’s gang meet little seven-year-old Hae-jin, a football-crazy kid who promises everyone he’ll be just like Tottenham Hotspurs’ Son Heung-min one day. The next thing you know, Hae-jin’s snuck in the van with everyone else, giving thumbs down assessments to potential buyers and trying to suss out what kind of guys So-young could be attracted to so he can grow up to be just like them.
He, and all the others, find ways to make dilemmas you wouldn’t dare even consider feel as obvious as whether you should take an umbrella when a downpour is on the horizon. Why have a child if you can’t raise him? Is killing him before he’s born less of a sin? Can you ever forgive the person who threw you away? Should welfare intervene? The police? What of the woman herself? It’s an impossible, endless cycle that pushes women into impossible situations that result in some kind of pain and judgment no matter which road you follow. A superficial reading could worryingly suggest a light anti-choice leaning (but it’s crucial to remember abortion was only decriminalized by a 2019 order of the Constitutional Court of Korea, which became effective lat year) — but that would be to miss the point and misunderstand Kore-eda entirely. No choice is ever fully the right one, and “Broker” knows that what matters is the path you take once the decision to leave has been made.
A lot of things don’t make sense when it comes to family — the ways you’re kind of stuck with those who brought you into this world, the distance felt between those who raised you and the people you want to be. Everyone is doing their best to work through those choices, to turn a crime into a form of salvation, to find a home for a child who won’t even know what the power to choose will mean until it’s too late to use it. These are quiet, existential conflicts Kore-eda has always been concerned with (and will undoubtedly live forever, as the fight continues for bodily autonomy) coming to with “Broker.” It’s one of the master’s most transparent and — when it comes to confrontations about what parents, and specifically women, can or should do for themselves and for the babies they are forever bound to — brave films of his career.
Call it murder, call it a crime against humanity, call her crazy, lock them up. But somehow in all of this, you can find a way to feel your heart getting a little lighter, to forgive and grow and trust that your family will find its way back, somewhere down the road.
“Broker” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It has been picked up by Neon for U.S. distribution.
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