It's not often that you're in a cinema and you realise that you're watching one of the year's most delightful films, but it happened to me during a screening of Broker at the Cannes Film Festival, and I'm sure that I won't be alone. Broker is written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, who won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2018 for Shoplifters, and in some ways his new film is just what you'd expect from the master of nuanced, bittersweet dramas about makeshift families. But in other ways Broker is a major departure. Not only is it Kore-eda's first Korean production, but it's an accessible, high-concept genre movie that brings to mind the Coen brothers and such crowd-pleasing indies as Little Miss Sunshine. I can't recall a non-English-language film which was so ripe for an English-language remake – or one that was so expertly crafted as to render a remake completely redundant.
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Given the global success of Parasite and Squid Game, the fact that this is a Korean film shouldn't put off Western audiences, especially as its loveable star, Song Kang Ho, was the paterfamilias in Parasite. In Broker he plays Sang-hyun, the owner of a small launderette in Busan. He is proud of his work, but he is being leaned on by local gangsters, so he resorts to another, far less legal job: he sells babies. A church near his launderette has a "baby box" by the front door, a hatch with a basket inside where new mothers can leave unwanted infants. Sang-hyun's big-hearted right-hand man, Dong-soo (Gang Dong Won) works part-time at the church, so if a baby arrives while he is on duty, he spirits it away and erases the CCTV footage. The partners in crime then set up a black-market adoption: the going rate for boys is a lot higher than it is for girls, apparently. But they always take care to ensure that the baby is going to suitably caring parents.
Broker keeps on getting funnier and knottier as secret motives are revealed, sympathies shift, mysteries deepen and dangers multiply
Their operation gets complicated when one baby box drop-off is observed by two police detectives on a stake-out, Su-jin (Doona Bae) and Lee (Lee Joo Young). They get more complicated still when the mother in question, So-young (Lee Ji Eun), has a change of heart, returns to the church, and cottons on to the men's racket. "Think of us as two cupids who will embrace your precious child," bluffs Sang-hyun, but So-young is more streetwise than both of them put together. After a slow, uncertain start, Broker gets into gear as a romantic road movie, as the two crooks, the mother, the cute baby boy and an adorably mischievous stowaway squeeze into a beat-up van, and set off in search of the child's ideal adoptive parents. Predictably, but nonetheless sweetly, the group becomes a family. They don't like to admit it, but moment by moment, misadventure by misadventure, they learn how good they are for each other. One twist is that they are being tailed by the two detectives who hope to catch them in the act – and because the detectives are always keeping an eye on them, they become part of the extended family, too.
Broker keeps on getting funnier and knottier as secret motives are revealed, sympathies shift, mysteries deepen and dangers multiply. It is, on one level, a farcical crime caper, but it is so elegantly plotted that it never seems contrived. On a similar note, the film gets more and more nakedly emotional as the journey continues from the vibrant green countryside to soft brown cityscapes, and the characters open up about their feelings of rejection: Dong-soo was abandoned as a baby, too. But the writing and the performances are so sincere and understated that scenes which would be unbearably twee in some film-makers' hands are heart-rending in Kore-Eda's. Besides, his explorations of sacrifice and responsibility are always deeply rooted in the messy real world, so you know that these criminals won't get a Hollywood happy ending. The poignant version of a happy ending they get instead is all the more rewarding.
You have to assume that US producers are lining up to grab the remake rights, but, again, they shouldn't bother. Which other writer-director has Kore-Eda's impeccable skill, delicacy and compassion? None that I can think of.
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