One mustn’t look further than the filmography of director Hirokazu Koreeda to discover grace by way of film. Throughout his career, the filmmaker has utilized a skill in observance, a want for patience, and a need for empathy to create nourishing stories of the human condition. In Broker (filmed in South Korea) he leans further into that trait as we follow a ramshackle group of eccentrics, social pariahs, and the abandoned as they try and fortify one life that’s just begun, even if they see only endless struggle for their own ahead of them.
From 1998’s After Life in which those who have passed are allowed a week being able to choose one memory to keep for eternity, to Still Walking which tracks the grief and survivors guilt that comes with the loss of a sibling, to the super After the Storm which refuses to allow it’s the protagonist off the hook for his selfishness, and, of course, Shoplifters, where he challenges the conditions that make a family, Koreeda’s are thought-provoking works of insight.
Broker splinters in its narrative, perhaps the film’s greatest mishap, as it attempts to give adequate time, space, and character depth to no less than four main characters with two ancillary ones who inform and/or play as foils to the main cast. A young woman, Moon So-young (played by Korean pop star Lee Ji-eun – known as IU to fans) drops her infant child off a church’s “baby box,” a way for young mothers to abandon their young children anonymously.
This and her quick return to recover her baby would be enough in most films to supply the story with adequate drama, but Koreeda’s screenplay pushes it further with Song Kang-ho’s Ha Sang-hyeon, a down-on-his-luck owner of a hand laundry store and Gang Dong-won as Dong-soo who works at the church in question. The two run an illegal business where they steal the babies who’ve been left and sell them on the adoption black market. It’s funny that a film with such dire circumstances where each character has made or is in the process of making rash, irresponsible, and illegal decisions can result in such a heartfelt picture.
The three leads here plus Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo), a young boy from a nursery Dong-soo grew up in, create instant warmth. Though strangers, coming together in a united front to sell Moon So-young’s child is an enlightening piece of storytelling. The script doesn’t play their actions off as ones of altruism and instead ones that are rooted in painfully human emotions as they’re all just trying to find their place in the world while trying to make another’s journey to that place smoother.
That easy chemistry they share is why the opposing plot that runs in tandem with them bugs, because while Bae Doona is a soulful performer whose eyes alone draw viewers in, her detective Soo-jin and her partner, Detective Lle (Lee Joo-young) don’t offer the same level of intrigue. They guide the plot and set the film up for its greatest pivots, but the heart of the series is found with the others.
During a moment of quiet, our main protagonists huddled in the safety of a hotel room where, from a distance, they might seem like a regular (enough) family, a beat of devastating, unassuming kindness transpires. It’s here that the film’s heart beats loudest, as Ha Sang-hyeon takes a shirt that’s been frayed from being overworn by Moon So-young, and hands it to her, having sewn on a new button to keep the top together a little longer. This beat of the film – not even a full minute of the runtime – demonstrates Koreeda’s boundless capacity for compassion. Oftentimes it’s not the big moments and grand gestures that make us feel seen and loved but the mundane tasks, acts of servitude, or nonchalant kindness that leave one ruined. Even the film’s most public display of affection shared between this group is done with all the lights off and everyone facing different directions.
Koreeda and the cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo bottle the road trip energy of this found family in clear, wide shots that piece together every character’s part of the puzzle. There’s beauty in the boxed confines of a hotel room and a stillness in a ferris wheel ride. These are characters who are suffering either by their own hand or the one life dealt to them, and that melancholy permeates with all of them fully stepping outside of the “what if” category of life. They’re accepting of their fates, but they want something better for So-young’s child.
The entire cast is superb, and anyone who watched Lee Ji-eun in My Mister knows she has the acting chops to match her vocals. However, as often is the case, it’s Song Kang-ho who delivers the lasting blows. As captivating as always, his character plays most in shades of gray as a man conflicted with a want to achieve more while accepting that his life may never amount to anything else. Devastating yet never anything other than engrossing with one of the best laughs in cinema. His face alone is an act of contradictions with his smile appeasing and distracting from the sorrow his eyes hold.
Broker may not be Koreeda’s greatest triumph as a filmmaker (and with his filmography, he’s hung his own impossible bar) but the delicacy in the story is impactful nonetheless. Because, by the film’s end, we desperately yearn for these characters to find their happiness, no matter how far they must drive to do so.
Broker is out now in limited theaters. Watch the trailer below.
Featured image courtesy of NEON