The themes and subject matter covered in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest drama, a moving, gentle story of chosen family, desperate connection and generational trauma, are not easily navigated. And in lesser hands, Broker would only succeed as a smarmy, mediocre gangster film that goes too dark for its own good, and that would be a very different movie indeed. Instead, Kore-eda, who also wrote the script, ably and beautifully guides us through a story about seemingly impossible choices, the unexpected complications the world often throws at us, and how in the end, all any of us are looking for is a place, literally and figuratively, to be safe.
Starring Song Kang ho (Parasite) and Gang Dong-won as low-level business partners who look more like father and son, the film begins rather removed from their work in a nondescript dry cleaners in Busan (a front for a certain business we’ll soon discover). It’s a rainy night in the city and a young woman (Lee Ji-eun) approaches a “baby box,” a sanctuary spot attached to an orphanage where struggling new mothers can leave their infants, no questions asked, and rest assured they’ll be cared for. But So-young leaves little Woo-sung outside the actual box, out in the cold and rain; perhaps, we’re left to assume, actually placing him inside the box was too far a step to actually acknowledging what she was doing. So, it’s up to one of two detectives (played by Bae Doona and Lee Joo-young) watching the baby box to move the baby into the safety of the small space.
Once inside, the real plot of Broker begins, which on its surface feels icky and very not OK: Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo are, as the title suggests, baby brokers, and they make their money by selling infants to couples who, for one reason or another, can’t legally adopt their own. When So-young comes back for Woo-sung, the two con-men are forced to tell her their plan, and as soon as she hears about the fees involved, the young mother wants in on the deal. Soon, this unlikely group is crisscrossing Korea in search of a couple who can pay them what they need, with the two detectives in hot pursuit, waiting to see the team in action so they can arrest them for human trafficking. Along the way, after a stop at a local orphanage, they pick up the cutest stowaway Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo), an orphan who desperately wants a family of his own, in whatever shape he can get.
That description in no way does this thoughtful, smart film justice, as Kore-eda is far more concerned with the well-being of his ensemble than the various plot lines that keep the movie moving forward. He judiciously paces out story development, dropping hints here and there about why Sang-hyeon needs to find the highest bidder for the baby; why Dong-soo is so intent on giving these abandoned infants new families; why So-young gave the child up in the first place; why the detectives are tasked with following these criminals in particular. As screen time goes, all of that is secondary to what these glimpses do to connect us to this motley crew of misfits; through moments simultaneously small and significant, not once does any idea except rooting for their success cross our minds. And that’s not necessarily to say that success is, well, selling the baby. Success, as each tug on our heartstrings gently reminds us, is simply being OK in the end.
Broker runs just over two hours long, and if we’re quibbling with Kore-eda’s exceptional work here, the film’s final third feels a bit more drawn out than it needs to be. By this time, we know this group intimately, and we’re entirely in their corner, however this whole affair wraps up. The extra time spent on the tail-end of their journey feels slightly unnecessary, but as an otherwise tremendously touching film, this indulgence is ultimately easy to forgive. Like Shoplifters before it, Kore-eda explores the most fragile of human conditions—forging connections with others—in unexpected yet enlightening ways. From the generational spread of the main characters, their ages and life experiences influencing their ability to be vulnerable, take risks or open up, to the complicated circumstances they encounter at every turn, from the various couples’ reasons for adopting to finally interacting with the detectives who’ve been trailing them, Broker is rarely what you expect it to be…it’s better.
Broker is now playing in select cinemas, including Music Box Theater and the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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