Every year in South Korea, hundreds of babies whose parents are unable to care for them are left at a “baby box”, a small, heated hatch that houses the child until it can be taken in by the local church and eventually re-homed. In Hirokazu Kore-eda's latest film Broker, the esteemed director turns his gaze towards these “baby boxes” in a trademark compassionate manner.
In Broker, two friends Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) run an illegal business together; occasionally selling children that are left behind at these baby boxes to families on the black market, when So-young (IU) returns after abandoning her child she discovers their comically lo-fi operation and instead of turning them in, joins them as they travel across the country sounding out buyers for her infant son. Sang-hyeon and Dong-so claim their plan is foolproof, but little do they know detectives Su-jin (Bae Doona) and Lee (Lee Joo-yeong) have had the baby box under surveillance, just waiting to catch the two “brokers” in the act. What follows is less cat-and-mouse, and more road-movie as the two groups – broker11s and detectives – embark on an odyssey that will change their respective lives forever. If that seems like a rather convoluted narrative set-up, well you'd be right, but those familiar with Kore-eda's work will know that few filmmakers possess the deft command of both craft and tone to pull it off, and that the Japanese auteur has these qualities by the bucket.
Like his previous films, including Still Walking (2008) and Shoplifters (2018), Broker eventually shifts its focus from the genre-heavy beginning towards a gentle meditation on a ragtag family unit that's been culturally, and societally displaced. Comprised of child-traffickers, sex-workers and abandoned children, the family at the heart of Broker are all outcasts in their own way, and yet together find comfort and a home in each other. What makes the film special however, is that not even for a second does Broker lean too far into the saccharine soppiness that lesser directors may find themselves pulling from.
Aiding this, is the truly stellar casting throughout. Song Kang-ho, who many of the audience will recognise from Parasite (2019) is faultless, bringing effortless charm and guile to his role as the hopeless paternal figure at the head of this expedition. His counterpart, Gang dong-won is the perfect foil, hopeful and wistful in equal measure, and the casting of K-pop vocalist IU as So-young is a revelation. A personal stand out is Bae-Doona as Detective Su-jin, who can convey a spectrum of emotions with a single glance, and acts as the film's flawed moral compass. At times however, Su-jin and her partner Detective Lee, whose banter forms some of Broker's more humorous moments, are burdened with clumsy moralising as they debate abortion, adoption and the moral nature of baby boxes. For a director so confident wading in the murky grey waters of social commentary these instances stand-out as particularly cloddish.
Where sometimes Kore-eda can be accused of eschewing traditional narrative beats in favour of more emotive, atmospheric storytelling, in Broker, the director returns to some of these more conventional tropes, for better and for worse. Take for instance the well-trodden backstory to So-young and her child Woo-sung, or the detectives rehearsing lines with a couple they've put in place to ensnare our would-be clan. At times these moments elevate a rather straightforward script, and there are enough twists and turns to keep you hooked, but neither are reasons alone to watch a Kore-eda movie, and nor should they be.
Broker excels as an unflinching and perhaps more impressively, non-judgemental observation on family, parenthood and forgiveness, and while it may not hit the heights of his more acclaimed films, it's another honest and hopeful rumination on the families we build and the families we leave behind. Despite being an oft-mined cinematic vein, virtually no working directors do it better or as even-handedly as Hirokazu Kore-eda.
Broker releases in U.K cinemas on Friday 24th February 2023