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TIFF 2022: Broker, One Fine Morning

One of the true joys of TIFF is being able to catch up on the films that originally premiered at Cannes, like “Moonage Daydream,” “Decision to Leave,” and “Triangle of Sadness.” Those were (or will be) covered in full here, but I wanted to share some thoughts on a pair of very different dramas that we’ll hit in full further down the road, including one of my favorite films of the year.

Hirokazu Kore-eda has made a number of films about the malleability of the word “family.” He’s fascinated by human connection through masterful dramas like “Nobody Knows,” “After the Storm,” “Shoplifters,” and more. Other than the fact that it’s set in South Korea instead of Kore-eda’s home country of Japan, people familiar with his filmography might be able to guess that “Broker” was his work (or at least heavily influenced by it) even if they didn’t see his name on the credits. This masterful drama has Kore-eda’s almost impossible grace and empathy in every scene, further exemplifying his ability to tell emotionally raw stories without devolving into melodrama. He is one of our most empathetic filmmakers, someone who never judges his characters, and presents their flaws as not only genuine but relatable. His latest is one of his most remarkable tonal accomplishments in that it’s a film about people that the viewer is inherently likely to judge as reprehensible and yet he finds a way to make their decisions feel genuine and even understandable. Kore-eda loves his characters. And that love keeps us engaged in their stories.

“This car is filled with liars,” says Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), and he’s not wrong. “Broker” starts with So-young (the breathtakingly great Lee Ji-eun, giving one of my favorite performances of the year) making the impossible choice to leave her newborn baby at a church drop box in the middle of night. She has no idea that she’s about to be thrust into a dynamic between two pairs on the opposite side of the law. On one side is Dong-soo, who works at the Busan Family Church that’s supposed to take in the newborn, and his business partner Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho of “Parasite,” who won an acting award for his work here at Cannes). They have a deal—Dong-soo erases the surveillance footage and the pair traffic the babies that are left at the church, selling them to bidders who are trying to bypass the adoption system. On the other side are the two cops outside who are watching this all go down: Ji-Sun (Bae Doona) and her new partner (Lee Joo-young), who are trying to break this trafficking ring. When So-young returns the next day to reclaim her baby, as she’s allowed to do, everything collapses, and she ends up on a strange road trip with Dong-soo, Sang-hyun, and another orphan child just trying to find a family of his own. Oh, there’s a murder too. It’s complicated.

And yet it’s also deeply uncomplicated. There’s an understated grace in Kore-eda’s films that can be hard to put your finger on. It’s in the way that Dong-soo warms to So-young or how the writer/director shapes her character’s journey from a woman who believes she has no options or friends to someone who discovers new avenues of strength. It’s in the fact that he never talks down to his characters or uses them in a way that feels manipulative, allowing the emotion of his dramas to build instead of forcing it on the narrative, even if it's admittedly hard to believe that all the pieces would fall into place like they do in the final act here. 

Those happy coincidences are forgivable because we've come to truly like these indisputably amoral people who are willing to sell babies to the highest bidder. Kore-eda understands that people who do the unimaginable often found themselves at those decisions through a life path that they never planned out. They’re often just taking the better fork in the difficult road. He’s so fascinated not just by people as individuals moving through the world but how we shape each other, often through these impossible families. I’ve long believed that people are heavily defined by who they know—I’m not sure any filmmaker captures this better than Kore-eda.

It takes a truly confident filmmaker to write and direct a character study that feels as low stakes as Mia Hansen-Løve’s “One Fine Morning,” which premiered at Cannes before Toronto and an upcoming theatrical release. The director of the excellent “Eden,” “Things to Come,” and “Bergman Island,” one of my favorite films of last year, has an elegance of character, an ability to spend time with well-drawn, believable people without forcing them into contrived melodrama. However, this time her confidence leads to a production with characters that she clearly loves but almost too much in that she doesn’t give them quite enough to do to connect to an audience. I’m all for a gentle character piece, but this one is so slight that it slips through your fingers, even as it flirts with concepts like love and death.

Sandra (Lea Seydoux) is a giver. She gives her all to her role as a mother to a clever eight-year-old (Camille Leban Martins). She doesn’t hesitate to give her heart and soul to her ailing father Georg (Pascal Greggory), who is increasingly succumbing to the mortality of old age, including Alzheimer’s. She’s even a translator, which doesn’t feel accidental in that’s another role in which Sandra connects people, this time across languages. And then she’s surprised to give her all to a romance when an old friend named Clement (Melvil Poupaud) pops back into her life and they begin an affair, despite the fact that he’s married with a child.

Hansen-Løve tracks Sandra’s life mostly across two plotlines with the most important men in her life, Clement and Georg. Sandra is the kind of person who seems to so rarely think of herself, and the love affair with Clement allows her to do so. At the same time, she manages her ailing father as he moves from his apartment to a hospital and then to a home, but she seems to be increasingly willing to let him go, understanding that she can’t stop what’s going to happen and needs to live a life of her own. Of course, the romance isn’t all sunshine and roses as Clement is pulled back to his family life, leaving Sandra to wonder if she’ll ever have the secure, stable relationship she so clearly desires.

Lea Seydoux is the reason to see “One Fine Morning,” imbuing every scene with a delicate sense of lived-in emotion. She’s so good that I kept waiting for the movie to do something bigger with her. There’s a fine line between realism and mundanity. Hansen-Løve can be indulgent in her clear avoidance of manufactured drama. I respect not forcing Sandra and the people in her life into melodrama, but that doesn’t mean the movie can’t have more natural, realistic weight to its plotting. Sandra is real in a way that’s easy to appreciate but also in a way that makes her almost ordinary. I wanted something to spark, to connect to, to push the film off its straightforward path. That doesn’t mean that it needed melodrama—it could have been an interesting tech choice or sharper dialogue or less scenes that don’t really seem like they do anything in terms of character or momentum.

In a sense, “One Fine Morning” is about a translator learning that life won’t always be easy to decipher into words. It’s about accepting the unpredictable, whether it’s how our minds and bodies will betray us or how love will pop in and out of our lives in ways we can’t predict. I’m happy that Hansen-Løve has reached a level in a career in which she can confidently make a film that works with ordinary emotion instead of artificial drama but hope she returns to a little bit of the latter next time around.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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