Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
A sex worker, two human traffickers and a runaway orphan pile into a van and criss-cross South Korea in search of buyers for the baby in their possession while cops work to track them down.
The police are looking to solve both a murder and bust a child-trafficking operation, but despite the subject matter, Broker is no grimy story of vile evildoers and the intrepid cops who’ll go to any length to catch them. Instead, it’s a tender and wistful ride-along with a group of people who each in their own way have been left behind and are trying to find a family of their own. What that looks like for them is what we’re here to find out.
Ji-eun Lee plays So-young, a young woman who leaves her baby at a church orphanage one rainy night, convinced she cannot give her boy any kind of life. Two men, Sang-hyeon (Song kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Dong-won Gang) take the baby in, but quickly make it “disappear” and whisk it away in order to offer it up for adoption on the black market. So-young reconsiders, however, and tracks the two men down, and together they agree to find the right parents for the boy (and split the cash).
It makes for odd-couple comedy mixed with devastating heart-to-hearts as we learn more about each of them and their own particular heartache: Dong-soo, an orphan left behind by a woman most likely just like So-young, Sang-hyeon, the frumpy leader, saddled with gambling debts and some of his own familial demons, and So-young, racked with guilt over what she’s doing.
The beauty is in Koreeda’s treatment of them all, and anyone who’s seen any of his many other fine films should know him capable of treating his characters with the exquisite grace of a discerning parent, firm but loving. Never sentimentalizing, never judgmental.
If it wasn’t obvious already, Broker solidifies Koreeda as one of our greatest working humanitarian filmmakers today, as he remains completely locked into the exploration of what family looks like. He tread similar waters with Shoplifters in 2018, where living-on-the-edge petty thieves come together as a family unit without a drop of shared blood between them, and Like Father, Like Son similarly questioned what made a family “family” as two couples realize they had their children switched at birth by mistake.
Broker plays on these themes as well, and Koreeda teasing and questioning has never been more keen and lucid. Add to that a masterful exposé of the hypocrisy of both the criminal element and the middle-class citizens who look down on the former, and you got yourself one of those must-not-miss films of the year.
If there’s a finger to put on Broker it’s perhaps it’s too involved with the many angles to this case of child abduction, as you have both sides of the law also hovering in the wings as our protagonists trek across the country. But honestly, it might just be because you’re so enamored with the chemistry of the central cast, and while awards are merely gold stars tackily attached to great work whose excellence is its own reward, the collective performance here by the central cast is deserving of every statue and accolade.
What makes a parent, and what makes a family? How can people be redeemed in what they do for others? Koreeda asks us with his usual poise, affection and sharp sense for human authenticity and texture, leaving us with another installment in what is becoming a life-long cinematic treatise on family constellations and what they say about the ties that bind us together.
Yasujirô Ozu cemented himself as the foremost chronicler of the changing times in mid-century Japan, and Koreeda now stands alongside him as a modern-day explorer of what it means to be family today.