Broker: baby traffickers build blissful families in Kore-eda’s Korean crime caper

After his Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters, Hirokazu Kore-eda forges another found family outside the law in this broader and cutesier story of ad lib social bonding.

27 May 2022

By Sophie Monks Kaufman

Lee Ji-eun as So-young, Gang Dong-won as Dong-soo and Song Kang-ho as Sang-hyun in Broker (2022)
Sight and Sound
  • Reviewed at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

There is a scene towards the end of Broker where one of the characters imagines how their story will be reduced to a tabloid headline. They have committed crimes and it will be all too easy for a hack to sideline their complexity in favour of a few sensationalist words. As a counterpoint, Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu has forged a career out of diving beneath headlines to give gently humanistic accounts of socially marginalised individuals. “My films try to make visible the kind of people that the government wants to forget or ignore,” he told me in reference to his 2018 Palme d’Or winner, Shoplifters.

Shoplifters and Broker are both ensemble dramas about found families, charming criminals and their precarious relationships to law and order; but while Shoplifters had a searing specificity to its social commentary, Broker makes a broader sentimental appeal. Furthermore, Kore-eda has relocated from Japan to Korea, casting as his lead K-pop star Lee Ji-eun (who performs under the stage name IU). Her searing presence here should guarantee her future in movies much as Lady Gaga’s turn in As Star Is Born (2018) did for her.

Doona Bae as Su-jin and Lee Joo-young as Lee in Broker

One noirish night in a Busan that’s all sheets of rain and glowing city lights, So-young (Lee) leaves her baby in a ‘baby box’ outside the Busan Family Church. She’s seen by two female stakeout cops, Su-jin (Doona Bae) and Lee (Lee Joo-young), who are hoping to catch illegal baby brokers – and tonight hit the jackpot in the form of Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), who accesses babies through his role at the church and takes them to his accomplice Sang-hyun (Parasite’s Song Kang-ho) at the latter’s laundry business. This pair’s criminal activities belie the fact that they treat their new find, the adorable and docile Wu-sang, with tender loving care. The contrasting sights of a baby alone on the street, then cradled in Song Kang-ho’s big bear arms, is Kore-eda’s way of telling us to leave knee-jerk moral judgements at the door.

So-young has second thoughts about abandoning her baby and retraces her footsteps until she has found the brokers. Still unsure of her own merits as a mother yet not quite wanting to wash her hands of Wu-sang, she compromises by joining them on the road to vet potential adoptive parents. The foursome leave town, later picking up a young orphan, Hae-jin, to be the fifth member of the posse. Meanwhile, the cops find a connection to a case of a man battered to death in a Busan hotel room, introducing a whodunnit into an already busy cinemascope.

This is more than the usual amount of plot and genre for a Kore-eda film, which at their most affecting breathe life and detail into a striking concept. It takes a while for Broker to find its currency amidst shifting viewpoints and plot strands. Social-realist concerns compete with murder mystery and road-movie genre trappings, leaving little space for the emotional undercurrents of the performances to ebb and flow.

Song and Gang in Broker

Once the baby brokers begin the business of baby brokering, operating out of a van literally held together with string, Kore-eda starts doing what he does best in letting the alternately warm and spiky dynamics of his found family emerge as the centre. All key characters, including detective Su-jin, are united by having had a difficult or non-existent relationship to their family of origin. A motif, frequently voiced, is the question of why you would abandon a child, whether or not it can ever be justified and if the existence of ‘baby boxes’ are a corrupting force. Broker stops short of taking an ideological position, rather showing that such questions haunt both babies (once they are grown) and parents thrust into these circumstances.

A standout scene features detective Su-jin in a car in the nighttime rain again as the sound of Amy Mann singing Wise Up softly drifts in from outside. Su-jin is on the phone to her partner, holds it out to relay the music, and articulates what any Paul Thomas Anderson fan is already thinking when she recalls the movie that first indelibly showcased the song. Magnolia, the sprawling emotional opus about all the ways families can break your heart and leave you lonely, is yin to Kore-eda’s yang of found families coming together to save the day. The motivations of all key characters stem from this saintly goal, making the film more saccharine than Shoplifters, with its deeper, knottier character studies. Still, an undeniable warmth lingers.

Broker is in UK cinemas from 24 February 2023.

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