A Road Trip to Find Humanity in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda Starring: Song Kang-ho, Gang Dong-won, Bae Doona, Lee Ji-eun, Lee Joo-young Running Time: 129 minutes

Director Hirokazu Kore-eda is well-versed in identifying complex strains on familial relationships. His 2018 Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters examined a family’s desperate reliance on stealing to stay afloat in life. He followed this with The Truth in 2019 which probed a daughter’s simmering resentments towards her famous mother’s fabricated memoirs. Playing with similar themes in his second non-Japanese feature outing, Kore-eda directs and pens the Korean story Broker, which he has described as a companion piece to Shoplifters.

The plot is busy from the outset. The core of the story stems from when sex worker So-young (Lee Ji-eun) leaves her new-born baby Woo-sun at a ‘baby box’ next to a Busan church. This will likely be a striking visual to many non-Korean viewers. At first glance, the box itself looks may look more akin to a vending machine compartment than a makeshift crib. It doesn’t appear to be a safe place to leave a vulnerable infant but has been a necessary mainstay in Korea as a last resort for desperate mothers. Spawning concern here is that baby Woo-sun is taken in by black market traffickers Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) and his partner in crime Dong-soo ) Gang Don-won. Made possible by Dong-soo’s role as an insider within the church, we learn that the two men have developed an operation whereby they pick up unwanted babies and illegally sell them on to prospective (and hopefully for the traffickers, wealthy) adoptive parents. 

Parallel to these events are introductions to a pair of policewomen detectives Soo-jin (Bae Doona) and Lee (Less Joo-young). The detectives have clearly been monitoring what they suspect to be foul play in the baby box industrial complex. An abnormality in this case is that So-young decides to come back to find the baby. Coming face to face with the traffickers, she decides to accompany them on a road trip with one goal in mind. To identify suitable adoptive parents for the baby. Unbeknownst to the new trio, they must also ensure that they evade the two passionate detectives who have found their trail and are insistent on bringing the traffickers to justice.

Kore-eda’s script places trust in his audience and resists the temptation of overbearing exposition. There is a lot of background that intersperse the plot with glimpses —but never a full picture —of why our characters find themselves in the story’s absurd and complex scenarios.  None of these glimpses into the characters’ lives will stretch viewers’ credulity. There are themes of poverty, class inequality, and reliance on rapacious loan sharks that have been teased out by popular Korean stories in recent years (think Hawng Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game, Bong Joon ho’s Parasite, and Lee Chang dong’s Burning). The writer director makes implications social and financial problems which he appears to know many audience viewers will be familiar with. Although Kore-eda is visibly interested in the wide use of baby boxes in Korea’s adoption system, there is little attention on this. Most of the substance here relates to character driven interactions. These not only tease out different moral perspectives on the ongoing events but also show how the worldview of individuals on screen may be shifting when confronting these events. It is through these interactions that we get a window into the humanity of these characters and—where applicable—may second guess our own internalised moral perceptions. A strength here is that Kore-eda is not only subtle in delivering this but also delivers some levity along the way.

It is plausible, however, that moments of levity are too few and far between. What we typically associate with prolonged cinematic road trips is some variation of funny events that move the journey forward. An excellent example here may be Jonathan Dayton’s Little Miss Sunshine or Rob Burnett’s The Fundamentals of Caring.  Broker has some laugh out loud moments but not with the frequency that may be expected when considering the calibre of its lead actor. Song Kang-ho has become internationally renowned in part because of his comedic talent. That he can deliver laughs in otherwise tragic plots such as Parasite and Memories of Murder is testament to his versatility in this area. Acknowledging this important strength of our veteran actor here, there is a sense of missed opportunity as his piercing comedic abilities appear to be underused.

A further potential sticking point is that it doesn’t appear entirely clear where Kore-eda wants the emphasis to be. There are side plots about Sang-hyeon owing vast sums of money to a criminal gang and these—at times—raise broader questions surrounding the social conditions that drive young men to black markets to survive. There are strong implications about regrettable events in So-young’s past that have led her to the position she finds herself in. Threaded throughout the dialogue between our two detectives are moral judgments about vulnerable women who can’t afford to take care of their children. All of these elements are touched upon but never dealt with in depth. This neutrality is likely due to the writer director’s sensitive approach to the story telling, but will undeniably pick away at the level of emotional investment many viewers may have in the film’s unfolding sequences.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Broker is in Irish cinemas from Friday 24th February

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