The Palme d’Or can be a blessing and curse, a gold-plated sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of filmmakers lucky enough to claim it. After the first waves of shock and joy recede, and their subsequent year-long victory lap reaches the finish line, those same filmmakers are left alone with one troubling thought: What’s next?
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda offers a fine case study in how that question might trip someone up. In so many ways, his win for 2018’s “Shoplifters” showed the system working as intended. Kore-eda had been to Cannes many times before; he directed a mature work that built on and streamlined earlier themes; he led viewers on a twisty road that led to a strong emotional payoff. He earned it.
If the coronation opened new doors for the Japanese director, it brought fewer new ideas. After his fine, if-none-too-memorable follow-up “The Truth” transplanted his model to a French setting, this year’s Cannes competition title “Broker” pairs Kore-eda with some of South Korea’s best-known stars. The film also finds him on repeat, earning little more than a participation trophy for another fine, if-none-too-memorable Kore-eda joint that works all the same ground but in a different language.
Of course, questions of nurture versus nature, of what defines a family, are the director’s stock and trade, but as “Broker” builds another unconventional family around a gang of petty (but goodhearted) crooks, it seems to run alongside “Shoplifters” on a parallel track.
While the earlier film started with the makeshift family together before pulling them apart, “Broker” begins with ex-con Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) and his younger buddy Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) lifting a baby from a no-questions-asked deposit box meant for mothers in dire straits. This particular mother, So-young (Lee Ji-eun), has her own checkered past (more like checkered present) and when she drops off her baby boy she also leaves a note promising to come back. Bad idea, it turns out, as that note precludes the child from adoption.
Out of nothing but good intentions to find the child a home, and maybe just maybe the prospect of a large payout for brokering the deal, the two men set out to find prospective buye—errs, adoptive parents. What they don’t expect is for So-young to return not to reclaim her child but to get in on the deal. Throw in a precocious orphan picked up along the way and you have yourself an unconventional family unit who might just learn to act as such as they drive down the Korean coast.
But two detectives from Busan’s Female Youth Division (played by Doona Bae and Lee Joo-young) track their every move, waiting for the exchange to nab the crew for child trafficking. Of course, Kore-eda makes character studies rather than cat-and-mouse thrillers, so this plot strand mostly underlines wider questions about agency. Did you really solve a crime you entrapped someone into committing? Can you blame a mother for dropping off her child when the open box created the opportunity to do so?
Exploring themes of solitude with his light-but-incisive touch, Kore-eda casts all of his characters as orphans of a sort. Dong-soo grew up in the kind of home he hoped to spare the baby from, while Sang-hyun left prison to find his wife and daughter had moved on without him. Here is a constellation of lonely stars, adrift and in the dark. Nowhere is the point better made than in mid-film homage to Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” which finds Bae’s detective listening to the Aimee Mann soundtrack in her car, physically and emotionally alone as she struggles to connect with her distant husband over the phone.
The film’s otherwise treacly score makes that one reprieve all the more memorable. Throughout, “Broker” hits some bum notes. For all his character-building skill on display, the director has a tougher time setting a tone, creating an odd dissonance between the film’s formal element and the rougher edges of its story. It makes for an odd mix, if hardly a deal breaker.
“Broker” the nuance and generosity and same set of questions we’ve come to expect. Mid-level Kore-eda is still more acute than most, even if top-level Kore-eda would be even better.