Hirokazu Kore-eda's 'Broker' is a gentle film arising from an appalling premise
The baby box sits outside a church in downtown Busan. It looks something like a FedEx or post office drop, except there’s a bassinet inside where anonymous mothers are able to leave babies that they can no longer take care of themselves. The site is supposed to be monitored 24/7 by church childcare volunteers, two of whom have disabled the video surveillance camera on the evening that troubled, twentysomething So-Young (Lee Ji Eun) tearfully abandons her infant and steals off into the night. She’s pinned a note to the child, claiming she’ll come back for him someday. The men from the church have heard this before — one of them was left at an orphanage wearing a similar note from his own mother — and they dutifully set about erasing any evidence of So-Young’s visit or of the smiling baby boy she’s left behind. His name is Woo-sung, and they’re going to sell him.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Broker” is a gentle movie of great warmth that proceeds from an appalling premise. Stealing a baby to sell for personal profit is about as low as you can possibly go, but what if the child were unwanted and unlikely to be missed? What if there were perfectly good potential parents out there who didn’t have the time or wherewithal to navigate the country’s complicated adoption process? Wouldn’t it be better for Woo-sung to be loved and cared for in a comfortable home, rather than languishing in an underfunded orphanage? A mother’s note indicating her intention to return makes a child ineligible for adoption, which is something baby broker Dong-soo (powerfully played by Gang Dong Won) learned the hard way growing up. He doesn’t want little Woo-sung to have the same experience. Also, he could use the money.
The centerpiece selection of last year’s Independent Film Festival Boston Fall Focus, “Broker” continues Kore-eda’s career-long exploration of what constitutes our concepts of family, while following the turn his more recent films have taken into darker, morally muddy waters. He’s one of our most compassionate filmmakers, always giving his characters the benefit of the doubt, sometimes even when he probably shouldn’t. Kore-eda’s 2018 Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters” chronicled a crew of small-time grifters that grew into a de facto family unit, and “Broker” hits a lot of the same beats, as our black-market baby hustlers keep picking up strays on the way to their big payday. The men from the church are soon accompanied not just by So-young herself — who complicated their plan by coming back for her baby after all — but also an adorable 8-year-old moppet who escaped from an orphanage, as well as two lady police officers that have been onto them since the opening scene.
Presiding over the scheme — calling him the brains of the operation might be a tad too generous — is Sang-hyeon, a floundering laundry shop owner played by the great Song Kang Ho, star of “Parasite” and so many other Bong Joon-ho pictures. There’s nobody in movies today better at being befuddled, and Song won Best Actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival for his goofy, generous work here as the most endearing baby bandit in a Hawaiian shirt since Nicolas Cage in “Raising Arizona.” Kore-eda is said to have changed the setting of the story from his native Japan to South Korea simply because he wanted to work with Song Kang Ho and deadpan delight Doona Bae, who co-stars as the depressed detective on his trail. (The filmmaker similarly shifted his 2019 film “The Truth” to Paris because he wanted to direct Juliette Binoche and Catherine Deneuve. I mean, can you blame him?)
I think his stories are able to travel so easily because of Kore-eda’s belief that people are no different wherever you go. We all want the same things: friendship, camaraderie, a helping hand. “Broker” is the most convoluted of his pictures, plot-wise — it’s the first of his family dramas I recall to involve cops and gangsters — and it suffers from a couple of awkward exposition dumps as well as an ending that’s entirely too nice for its own good. One gets the sense that the filmmaker couldn’t be less interested in the murder on the margins of his picture, and would rather we luxuriate in the lovely moments of connection found by this band of cast-offs, misfits and abandoned adult children looking for better lives.
It's not just babies that are left behind in boxes. Kore-eda repeatedly returns to a subtle, yet insistent visual motif of constraining his characters inside similar shapes, whether they’re sitting in the back of Sang-hyeon’s ramshackle laundry truck or locked into the enclosures of a Ferris wheel. Everyone in “Broker” is boxed in, to some degree or another, by bad luck, poor choices or the circumstances of their birth. The movie is about how we help each other get out.
“Broker” is plays at the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema and the Coolidge Corner Theatre beginning Friday, Jan. 6.