Among the most difficult tasks a film could possibly tackle, surely “making the audience fall in love with the people who sell babies for cash” would have to be somewhere near the top of the list. It’s easy to feel the ice dripping down the audience’s collective back throughout the early minutes of South Korean film Broker, determined in our collective judgment against these guys. Even as the characters get in the odd joke, Japanese writer-director-editor Hirokazu Kore-eda’s script never lets us forget who and what these people are.
But Kore-eda is a sorcerer of human emotion. Through tender, attentive observation and a fair dose of sentimentality, Broker’s protagonists become the bedrock of a strange little family, an odd band of misfits we root for, even as a sense of dread tugs at the heart. A forlorn story injected with so much love and far more comedy than one might expect, Broker is a tale of family more than one of crime or human trafficking, though it is both of those too. A startlingly human portrait of love, it seems like Broker will be one thing, then it becomes another and another, first warming your heart and then cracking it open in two.
The auteur behind the Oscar-nominated and Palme d’Or winning film, Shoplifters, Kore-eda leaves his native Japan for only the second time (the first for 2019’s France-set The Truth), this time for South Korea. Broker follows the story of two men, Sang-hyun (played by the legendary Song Kang-ho of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Parasite fame) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won, Peninsula), who sell babies to wealthy parents-to-be at a markup. They’ve been at this side hustle in Busan, a seaside South Korean city, seemingly for years until one mother with a complicated history, So-young (Lee Ji-eun, My Mister, Hotel del Luna) comes back for her baby. Meanwhile a couple of cops (Bae Doona, The Host, Sense-8 and Lee Joo-young, Itaewon Class) have been paying more attention than anyone realized.
Reading that or nearly any description, audiences may think they know what Broker is and be prepared for one kind of film. Rest assured, those assumptions are blessedly wrong. While the script shows the way the world judges these characters, and how they judge one another, it does not invite the audience to join, even for those who are so often on the receiving end of public scorn like a mother who gives up her child. Reproductive politics aside, if anything, the script might be a touch too sentimental, too willing to consider the possibility of a hopeful outcome. But in the moment while watching, and in this collective human moment, it’s hard not to feel a bit desperate for even a small dose of sentimentality and hope, especially when they’re this lovingly executed.
Watching Broker can feel lingering in its pacing, but that’s largely due to the way the film allows shots to breathe with an unhurried pace, giving plenty of room for lavish landscape vistas, and the kind of head room a photographer would insist on. Nonetheless, the plot itself gets moving rather quickly, with the script smartly foregoing unnecessary concerns like flashbacks or how the brokers contact clients.
Most often, Broker is a road trip movie with light shades of Little Miss Sunshine, another familial group populated by oddballs with troubled pasts as they embark on a mission in a beat-up van. Broker, however, is far more contemplative and with a deeper sense of melancholy. As they traverse the Korean peninsula by van, train, and double-decker tour bus, the film shows off the country’s many charms, from its mountainous natural beauty to bustling fish markets and carnivals. Like any good road trip, Broker is also at its most memorable in small unexpected moments of comedy, like a carwash with the film’s secret weapon (newcomer Im Seung-soo) and a brief run-in with a cop.
The cast is an embarrassment of riches, and several of them have worked together on major critical or box office successes in the past, including The Host, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Itaewon Class, and Secret Reunion. Bae Doona’s stoic, judgmental cop seems like it was written for her, and she does her best with the film’s most heavy-handed line of dialogue. We watch the excellent main ensemble become parents and family right before our eyes, the bonds between them naturally knitting quietly closer from scene to scene, at first gradually, and then all at once. Song Kang-Ho’s warmly charismatic launderer/tailor is the warm beating heart at the center of it all, and he deserves every accolade for the rich performance. Lee Ji-eun, better known as the singer IU, is formidable as So-young, the baby’s mother, in her first film role. While most other characters move straightforwardly to reveal more of themselves as the film progresses, So-young remains more of a mystery throughout. In lesser hands, So-young could be one-dimensional, an archetype surrounded by experienced film talents, but Lee brings her to life with vivid texture.
Often when Western films are referred to as having a photographic compositional aesthetic, that means a rigid, Wes Anderson-like addiction to symmetry and deep depth of field. Unlike the Andersonian look, Broker cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (Parasite, Burning, Snowpiercer) creates an aesthetic no less photographic, but far more naturalistic, perhaps betraying Kore-eda’s background in documentary work. Like a documentary photographer, Hong finds the profoundly beautiful shots within thoroughly quotidian (if somewhat dreary) circumstances, complementing the story itself. Striking in its asymmetry and muted color palette of grays, blues, and greens, the cinematography of Broker is punctuated with the occasional pop of red or pink from a balloon, a clump of cotton candy, or an LED sign. The whole thing can feel a bit like a magic trick, when beautiful shots sneak up on the audience out of places where they don’t seem to belong.
There is a momentary reveal about a baby’s fate in the final minutes of the film that elicited a brief visceral reaction from my audience, only for it to turn out to not be quite as it first seemed. It’s impossible to imagine that Kore-eda wouldn’t foresee this reaction, that he wasn’t completely in control of his craft when he conjured it. And yet, I struggle to understand why the moment exists. Perhaps as a momentary needling reminder that sometimes, the difference between a crime and a community service is merely semantics, and that the powerful cannot be trusted not to abuse their station, even if an individual turns out to be sort of fine. Why do it and then walk it back? Maybe Kore-eda needed a little bit of hope and sentimentality as well.
Broker lives in the strange, quiet in-between hours when it’s easy to become lost in thought. The ebbing of a rain storm or the pensive nature of looking out the window on a long drive. The quiet of being the first one to bed or the last one asleep. The bald honesty of the momentary darkness when a train passes under a bridge. In keeping with so much of Kore-eda’s other narrative work, Broker is a story of a strange little found family crafted nearly out of whole cloth where one least expects it, and what it takes to make that family whole.
Broker opens in limited release in the U.S. on Dec. 26 and in the UK on Feb. 3.