Broker may well be the sappiest movie ever made about human trafficking. A low bar, perhaps, but it speaks to the tonal tightrope act director Hirozaku Kore-eda accomplishes with his latest delicate melodrama.
Like much of Kore-eda’s work, the focus is on family (apologies to Dr. James Dobson), specifically the kind you make yourself. Set in South Korea rather than Kore-eda’s usual Japan, it stars Ha Sang-hyeon (the father from Parasite) as Sang-hyeon, who owns a laundry shop and also spends time at his neighborhood church, which has a “baby box” where unable or unwilling mothers can drop off their infants. With his partner Dong-soo (Gang Dong-wan), he runs a side operation that involves taking a baby from the box, deleting the video footage of its deposit, and then selling it to willing parents.
Sounds terrible, right? And yet, there’s a moral ambiguity in the fact that, by screening potential adoptive parents and preventing a child from getting lost in the overwhelmed Korean foster care system, these two are performing a social good. That’s not how the law sees it, of course, and we learn early on that they’re being surveilled by a pair of female detectives, who hope to catch them in the act of selling.
Things get complicated when young mother Moon So-young (Lee-Ji-eun) returns the day after dropping off her son, only to find that the church has no record of him. Tracking down Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo, Moon ends up accompanying them on a road trip to meet with an array of prospective buyers. Along the way, they pick up an irascible orphanage escapee named Hae-Jin (Seung-soo Im). As this quartet bickers and bonds, it becomes clear early on where this tale is headed.
But that’s okay. The pleasure here comes from watching each character evolve, most especially Sang-hyeon and Moon. Kang-ho utilizes the same low-key, hangdog aura as in Parasite to equally moving effect. Like all great screen actors, he manages to convey complex and intense emotions while barely twitching a muscle. Ji-eun Lee has an even more difficult task in depicting Moon’s journey from being a young mother who thinks she has nothing to offer a child to someone who finds value in herself despite her past mistakes.
There are a lot of strikes against Broker, from its somewhat cavalier treatment of its protagonists’ crimes to its iffy narrative twists to its saccharine score. Only the last of these ended up really bothering me, though—the rest can be chalked up to Kore-eda’s desire to tell a fairy tale of sorts, one in which even the most superficially despicable acts have decent motives and the most blatantly reprehensible people can be redeemed. That’s not the world we live in, to be sure. But Broker isn’t sheer escapism, either. Its characters, including those two detectives, grapple with their flaws and doubts.
Some viewers may wish that Kore-eda more straightforwardly addressed the political and social implications of “baby boxes.” (After all, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett brought them up during oral arguments in the case that overturned Roe v. Wade as a reason that abortion rights were no longer so necessary.) Is Broker’s implied criticism of Korea’s adoption and foster care system a pro-choice argument? Or are its protagonists’ efforts to ensure that every baby gets a loving home a counter to those arguments? Despite the urgency of those issues, trying to parse them here seems to miss the point. (Opens Friday, Jan. 13, at Living Room Theaters)
At the opposite end of the warm fuzzies engendered by Broker lies the existential dread and confusion that results from a viewing of Skinamarink, the latest viral indie horror sensation.
First things first: Writer-director Kyle Edward Ball has made a feature film, one with ambition and a distinctive style, for a reported $15,000. That’s impressive, full stop.
That ambition, Ball has stated, is to pit the viewer inside a nightmare—specifically, the sort of common childhood nightmare where your parents have disappeared, you’re trapped in your house, and there’s …something … in there with you. To create this level of intense subjectivity, Ball has shot the vast majority of his film from a child’s-eye point of view.
He has also dispensed with anything resembling a traceable narrative. Skinamarink is as much an avant-garde mood piece as it is a horror flick. Filmed in super-grainy faux-16mm style, it mostly consists of long, static shots at odd angles, accompanied by a soundtrack of ambiguous, creepy sounds and occasional snatches of whispered dialogue. We never really see the two kids, Kayley and Kevin, beyond the backs of their heads or their feet.
These things happen: All the doors and windows in their house disappear. The kids hesitantly explore the upstairs and find their parents in some sort of trance. A voice so unsettling it must be subtitled into English seems to speak to them. Lego blocks move mysteriously across a carpeted floor. Public-domain cartoons occasionally come to life on a vintage television. There might be a few more.
Clearly reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project or David Lynch’s Inland Empire, Skinamarink takes both of those one step further by removing any specificity to its characters or situations. I could see this being a captivating experience in a theater setting with a likeminded crowd, but in almost any other context your mind may start to wander to this week’s grocery list before too long. It’s the sort of purely sensory experience that would have been much more rewarding at around 70 minutes. At more than a half-hour longer than that, the returns diminish rapidly. I’m excited to see what Ball will accomplish with, say, $100,000. With any luck, Skinamarink will be a completist’s curio in a fruitful filmmaking career. (Opens Friday, Jan. 13, at the Hollywood Theatre and Regal Fox Tower.)
ALSO THIS WEEK:
The Portland EcoFilm Festival returns for its tenth edition this weekend at the Hollywood Theatre. Friday night has an arboreal theme, including a documentary about the Madagascan practice of hollowing out living baobab trees to use as water reservoirs and Sentinels, a beautifully shot observational short following a small group of California tree-sitters hoping to disrupt the clearing of a forest road. The directors of Sentinels will be on hand for a post-film Q&A. The rest of the weekend features more ecological short films on Saturday and, on Sunday, Beans, a Canadian feature based on the real-life 1990 indigenous uprising known as the Oka Crisis. Future festival screenings will continue throughout the year.
If these gray and soggy Northwest days make you long for high-energy tunes and Technicolor rainbows (and they should), then the lineup at the Clinton Street Theater over the next couple weeks should be appealing. Their “Color and Sound” series features eye-popping classics such as The Red Shoes and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and dynamic music documentaries such as The Punk Singer (about Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill) and Unknown Passage (about local legends Dead Moon). Check their website for a full schedule. And if you haven’t seen Cherbourg on the big screen, what are you waiting for?
The Bollywood epic RRR is quickly becoming a word-of-mouth cult hit, having won a Golden Globe Award for Best Song and enrapturing packed houses with its exuberant (if, typical, for Bollywood) combination of action, music, and tigers. It’s on Netflix, but, come on — watching this anywhere but on the big screen with a packed crowd is like driving a Maserati to the corner store. The Hollywood Theatre has added shows on Jan. 16 (already sold out), as well as four more in the coming weeks, while Cinema 21 has a couple on Jan. 27 & 28. One gets the sense these might not be the last, but why risk it?