Review: Broker

It’s understandable why, following his biggest international hit, Shoplifters, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2018, Hirokazu Kore-eda decided to make two movies outside of Japan. Shoplifters was, relatively speaking, a critical and commercial hit in his native country, but it also drew a cold reaction from certain corners for implying that there were poor people in Japan who resorted to petty crime in order to survive and that so-called traditional Japanese family structures don’t guarantee social cohesion. After going to France and making the surprisingly effective The Truth, Kore-eda made Broker in South Korea, a country that, despite its storied and somewhat justifiable enmity toward Japan, has always appreciated his work. Several years ago the Busan International Film Festival honored him with its Asia Filmmaker of the Year award. Broker centers on baby boxes—compartments installed at hospitals or churches where desperate mothers anonymously deposit newborns they don’t think they can raise—and was originally conceived for Japan, where there is at least one baby box in operation, but after talking to Korean actor Song Kang-ho Kore-eda decided to transplant the story to Korea. It’s obvious that Kore-eda, who has made his mark by exploring all the ramifications of “family,” wants to say something about society’s role in defining the bond between parent and child, and Korean cinema has a more mature and varied attitude toward socially relevant themes and is not afraid to challenge accepted readings of these themes. Except for Kore-eda and a handful of others, Japanese directors still have an awkward time tackling social issues. Their movies are either too squeamish or too earnest.

However, the kind of nuanced complexity Kore-eda brought to the matter of margin dwellers in Shoplifters has been diluted in Broker, which operates in a world that feels more like a movie. This may well be Kore-eda’s most plot-driven film. Song plays Sang-hyun, a man who steals infants left in a Seoul church’s baby box and then finds parents who have become frustrated with all the red tape and veiled guilt that comes with legal adoption. Money is his aim, since his dry cleaning business is heavily in debt to loan sharks. His partner in this criminal endeavor is Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), who works at the church and himself grew up in an orphanage. He knows firsthand how the system treats unwanted children, but after he and Sang-hyun snatch a baby from the box and erase the relevant security camera footage, the baby’s mother, So-young (Lee Ji-eun), has second thoughts and returns to the church for a tour of their daycare facilities. She immediately notices her baby isn’t there and, realizing what happened, confronts Dong-soo and Sang-hyun, who try to convince her that what they are doing will provide a better family for the baby, and though she doesn’t entirely buy their story she accedes, with the condition that she accompany them as they interview prospective parents. A road trip ensues as the quartet, along with a stowaway kid from the facility where Dong-soo grew up, make their way south to Busan, Sang-hyun’s hometown, where his estranged daughter lives. You can envision the Power Point presentation outlining how all these refugees from conventional families recombine into an alternate version.

But there’s even more. Two police officers, Su-jin (Bae Doona) and Eun-joo (Lee Joo-young), have been staking out the baby box and know that Sang-hyun and Dong-soo have taken the child. They decide to follow them on their road trip in order to witness any money changing hands so they can arrest the pair for trafficking. Predictably, as the journey progresses and the party gets bigger and the stakes more complex, the two cops start wondering about what they are observing, and just as everyone in Sang-hyun’s beat-up delivery van has a tragedy in their background, the two police officers are carrying their own familial baggage that makes their mission that much more emotionally fraught. There’s even a murder investigation meticulously woven into the fabric of the story. 

Broker is a typically well-executed mainstream, middle-brow Korean film that successfully elucidates a social issue in an entertaining way, but unlike The Truth, where Kore-eda faithfully adapted his pet themes to a French milieu while maintaining his unique sensibility, Broker could have been made by any world-class director with a flair for contrivance.

In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Shibuya White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).

Broker home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 Zip Cinema & CJ ENM Co., Ltd.

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