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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Broker, Review: Brokering a deal for heavy, serious, dark cinema

Broker, Review: Brokering a deal for heavy, serious, dark cinema

A Japanese film won the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or in 2018, titled Shoplifters. It was directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. The following year, a South Korean film bagged the honours. It was called Parasite. After the lean, Covid years of 2020 and 2021, we have a South Korean film directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, called Broker, releasing in 2022. The film competed for the Palme d’Or, but bagged only the Ecumenical Jury prize, and won the Best Actor prize for its male lead, Song Kang-ho. Back in 2013, Kore-eda’s film Like Father, Like Son too had bagged the Jury Prize at Cannes. Kang-ho’s performance is indeed praiseworthy, but I cannot put forth any judgmental view, because I don’t know what was the competition was like. About the film, one sees the Kore-eda stamp on the making, in general, but the solid subject matter, like he had in Shoplifters, is not evident. Bittersweet sarcasm and pushing the limits was a prominent feature of Shoplifters, which is not the case here. Soon after the beginning, the narrative tracks tend to drag and occasionally appears illogical. Moreover, it is heavy going, and dark frames, most of the time.

Ha Sang-hyeon is the owner of a laundry and works as a volunteer at the nearby church, where his friend Dong-soo works on a part-time basis. Occasionally, women come to the church and leave their new-born babies in a baby-box at the church. This normally happens in unwanted pregnancies. The women then forget about the babies, and never return to the church to check on the fate of their offspring. Ha Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo make a business out of this facility provided by the church, acting as brokers.

Sang-hyeon occasionally steals babies from the baby box, with Dong-soo, who deletes the church's CCTV footage that shows a baby was left there. They then sell the babies on the adoption black market. But when a young mother, Moon So-young comes back after having abandoned her baby, she discovers them. She does not want the baby back. Instead, she hopes the baby will find good adoptive parents. To make sure, she decides to go with the two of them on a road trip to interview her baby's potential parents. Meanwhile, two lady detectives, Soo-jin and Lee, are on their trail, following them in their car, as they go from city to city, to meet prospective parents, and are bent upon catching them red-handed. It turns out that So-young is a prostitute and has murdered the baby’s father, her client. So, the police are now on her trail too.

Selling of babies in the illegal adoption market is not a new theme, but the idea of a baby box and stealing from the church are new elements. If such a practice is indeed prevalent in South Korea, it is a sad commentary on humanity, that babies have to left in church-boxes. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s own screenplay takes a little too long in getting to the crux of the matter. Apparently, the duo has been pinching babies for quite some time now, and it seems improbable that no suspicions have been raised at all. Even more surprising is the time it takes for the law to catch-up with So-young. Ha Sang-hyeon’s scene with his daughter is a very good piece of acting. But the exchange could not have been anything except what transpires, so it is an anticipated scene. The revelation that Dong-soo was himself an abandoned baby is interesting. That he is willing to register himself as the baby’s father, and So-young’s statement that men say this when they want to get married to the baby’s mother, are interesting studies in human behaviour. Also commendable is the fact that So-young decides to screen the prospective adoptive parents, and, although she has abandoned the baby, she wishes a good life for it.

Song Kang-ho as Ha Sang-hyeon, the laundry owner cum baby-snatcher who is in heavy debt and faces the wrath of loan sharks, gives a compelling performance, with the daughter scene and the Ferris Wheel scene standing out.

Gang Dong-won as Dong-soo, Sang-hyeon's partner-in-crime who works part-time at the church has his moments of inspiration.

Lee Ji-eun as Moon So-young, a mother who decides to leave her newborn baby at the baby box, is generally poker-faced, except when it comes to approving prospective parents. She has a complex character that finally comes into its own at the climax.

Bae Doona as Soo-jin, a female police detective who is investigating the two men's illegal business, is languid and laid-back

Lee Joo-young as Detective Lee, Soo-jin's colleague, who also participates in the investigation, both travelling in same car, is equally unhurried.

Im Seung-soo as Hae-jin, a child in the same nursery as the one in which Dong-soo spent his childhood, who joins the brokers' journey, is cute and lovable.

Kang Gil-woo as Mr. Lim, a trader who pretends to be an adoptive parent but is a trafficker who wants to traffic So-young’s baby, has just one scene yet convinces in the role.

Along with his cinematographer, Hong Kyung-pyo, Hirokazu Kore-eda revels in dark images.  Sometimes, it is difficult to discern the image on screen. He takes the dark theme too literally. As editor, Hirokazu Kore-eda needed to keep it shorter than the 129 minutes it clocks. In terms of pace, the film appears uneven, with some scenes taking rather long and a few others going snip-snip.  One track that could have definitely been trimmed is of the two female detectives on the trail of the two criminals, and another is the scene in the Ferris Wheel.

The sub-titles swept pass at such speed that I could not read many of them. It is an occupational hazard, but it did come in the way of my understanding the film better.

After he set-up a benchmark for himself with Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda fails to reach dazzling heights this time. Even then, a film written, edited and directed by the immensely talented Kore-eda, who directed his first film in 1991 and who will turn 61 this year, deserves to be seen. If you like serious, heavy, dark cinema, with little in terms of relief, Broker is for you.

Rating: ** ½


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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