Director: Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Stars: Bae Doona, Song Kang-ho, IU
So-young (willowy pop startlet IU) is a single mother in a fix. In a moment of desperation she abandons her newborn son Woo-sung at a ‘baby box’ (some dystopian version of an Amazon drop off point) with only a note promising to return for him soon. Return she does, only to discover Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) and his business partner Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) erasing the evidence so that they can sell the baby on the black market. So-young decides to join them in searching for a buyer, and so begins a bizarre and tender cross-country road trip with Bae Doona’s dogged cop Su-jin rarely far from their heels.
Continuing the touring phase of his career with a stop-over in South Korea, Japanese maestro Hirokazu Kore-Eda has described Broker as a companion piece to his 2018 Palme d’Or winning smash Shoplifters, and it’s easy to understand why. The threesome above are joined on their journey by young Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo); a cute, rambunctious kid in the Minari mold, and his presence cements the sense that Kore-Eda is once more concerned with remixing notions of family in the 21st century. Much like the unrelated vagabonds that mimicked familial roles in Shoplifters, the crew in this van slowly adopt similar identities. Sang-hyeon – initially the keenest to find a buyer – takes on a number of traditionally maternal roles from the start; a necessity of their ‘business’. He is the one who launders and sews, etc. Dong-soo has designs on playing the father, while chipper Hae-jin has no bones about relating to the newborn like a brother. So-young, meanwhile, remains reticent to partake, evidently fearing that closeness will make her decision all the harder to commit to.
The connectivity within Kore-Eda’s body of work thus far doesn’t end at Shoplifters, however. He’s shown a preternatural ability to study and work with children many times over in his past films. 2004’s Nobody Knows saw abandoned kids forming a family unit themselves for self-preservation, while 2013’s heartbreaker Like Father, Like Son placed notions of ‘ownership’ of children front and centre with a swapped-at-birth storyline inspired by real events. And then there are the young heroes of 2011’s I Wish, also. When it comes to focusing on adolescents to tell tender stories – received ecstatically on the world stage – only Céline Sciamma compares.
If there is a criticism commonly levelled at Kore-Eda, it is that such tales can err toward the saccharine. His detractors may find such fodder again in Broker, which finds a tone of good humour and burrows into it for much of the film’s breezily enjoyable mid-section. Ostensibly a road movie, we’re treated to an array of bubbly escapades. An incident in a car wash. A brief interaction with a traffic cop. Kore-Eda is embracing the formula of the road movie and the family movie with these vignettes, and it is in such moments that the connectivity between the characters is further cemented.
And yet, keenly, disparate notions of ennui dapple the film and anchor it. These are all deeply wounded individuals. Piecemeal, we come to appreciate So-young’s reasons for giving up Woo-sung, while greater context only amplifies the psychological complexities for her newfound ‘brokers’, particularly Sang-hyeon, who seems to be at a crucial intersection in his life. Played by internationally beloved South Korean actor Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder, The Host, Parasite, etc), it’s one of his finest screen performances thus far, justifiably awarded the Best Actor laurels at 2022’s Cannes Film Festival. Arguably surpassing him, however, is the relatively inexperienced IU (real name Lee Ji-eun), and a scene they share together in the mezzanine space between train cars is quietly awesome; particularly for how Kore-Eda uses timely shade to darken and even obscure IU’s face. It is one of the most admirably fragile pieces of work in the past year.
Outside of the makeshift family unit, further concerns and complexities become apparent in Bae Doona’s cop. At the beginning of the story it is clear who the ‘brokers’ are but, isolated from the growing warmth of the unit in the van, Su-jin manifests an obsessive determination to see the baby sold so that she can make an arrest. And once more Kore-Eda (also the film’s screenwriter) sketches in a backstory that adds convenient resonance to her motives.
A rooftop exchange that features Su-jin tilts Broker perilously toward a Pro-Life reading, and one can well imagine some viewers latching onto this as a reason to outright reject or criticise the film. It rears its head elsewhere, too, as in the film’s sugariest bedtime sequence which sees Hae-jin insisting that they all thank one another for being born. But rather than take such a divisive political stance, I’d be more inclined to think Kore-Eda’s interest is in the discussion. Still, depending on your own political tendencies it can leave an uneasy, sour taste.
After his forgettable, nothing-y European venture The Truth, one might therefore have grave concerns for the trajectory of Kore-Eda’s career, but in spite of the above Broker sees the director rediscovering much of the creative deftness that made his name. Time and again this feature quietly wows. Through performance. Through clean, restrained framing. Through storytelling. Visually, it offers new elements to his regular clutch of indicators. In particular the urban neon of South Korea’s cities allow the director to colour his scenes in a noir register that his past stories haven’t allowed.
In spite of a couple of misgivings this is another grower, another gem. If Broker isn’t quite top tier Kore-Eda, its topper-most of his second tier, and that’s still roughly an arm’s length away from most filmmakers’ best.