After making his French-language debut with The Truth in 2019, Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda now decamps to South Korea for its follow-up. Parasite’s Song Kang-ho stars as Ha Sang-hyeon, a laundry owner with a side-line: with friend Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), he pilfers abandoned babies from the ‘baby box’ of the local church, then sells them on the adoption black market. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, quite a lot actually, but fear not: Kore-eda’s film focuses on a relatively gentle dilemma, as young mother So-young (Lee Ji-eun) re-emerges with second thoughts after abandoning her child. Further complications come in the form of a pair of detectives (Doona BAE and Lee Joo Young).
Despite the language and locale, the results are identifiably Korea-eda: gentle, humane, often wryly humorous. At the same time, there’s an uneasiness to the film that comes not so much from the shift in setting, or even the potentially queasy undertow of the subject matter, but from the way the writer-director’s characteristic lightness of touch tussles with overt heart-string tugging and quasi-farcical plot contrivance.
The Dardennes’ 2005 film L’Enfant – which took a somewhat tougher approach to related subject matter – perhaps better threaded the needle between humanism and plot machination.
Still, Korea-eda is never anything less than a graceful craftsperson, and he draws typically strong performances from the whole ensemble: Song is as magnetic as ever, and the charismatic Bae makes the most of a potentially limiting role. The filmmaking itself is smooth as ever, though the tone is pushier than one might expect – particularly in the application of a sucrose musical score by Jung Jae-il.
It’s a thin line between the humane and the sentimental. Korea-eda has masterfully threaded it in the past, and if he falters a little here, he’s still one of a kind – whatever the language.
Words: David Turpin
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Talent: Song Kang-ho, Gang Dong Won, Donna Bae, Lee Ji Eun, Lee Joo Young
Release Date: February 24