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'Broker' Review: In Hirokazu Kore-eda's hands, a gritty premise becomes graceful

"Parasite" star Song Kang-ho stars as a child trafficker in a stirring new South Korea-set drama that's more uplifting than its premise suggests.
Credit: NEON

TEXAS, USA — Under the cover of a stormy night and freshly deleted surveillance footage, a man tends to a newborn baby that isn’t his. His accomplice is nearby. So is the child’s mother, and though she’s distancing herself after having abandoned her son, she’ll reunite with him sooner than she thinks. For now, just a few minutes into the movie bearing the stay-on-your-guard title of “Broker,” there is this man, Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), leaning closely into this kidnapping-by-proxy scene.

Leaning, but not leering, and there’s a world of difference we sense ourselves occupying when watching this interaction unspooling with such sensitivity that it defangs our worst suspicions, against all odds, about what Sang-hyeon intends to do. 

Such are the methods of writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda, who makes the kinds of dramas that elevate seemingly simple setups into unexpectedly rich new territory. His Palme d’Or-winning “Shoplifters” remains one of the most eloquent of recent cinematic showcases about the unexpected places where families can be found and bonds created. “Broker,” a movie that is just as moving if not as tightly written, sticks to a similar conceptual template, establishing an unlikely community and the murky moral dilemmas that bind them. What separates a Kore-eda film is that these aren’t an invitation to indict his characters, but to appreciate the small but specific universes they occupy. “Broker” introduces us to child-trafficker protagonists, brushes with murder and sidesteps towards a pair of criminal investigators trying to scheme their way to an arrest.

Despite all this, maybe the most alarming thing about the movie is how unalarmingly it plays out. 

That isn’t to say the film is without conflict. In Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), the traffickers in question, “Broker” has two characters who are seasoned in the ways of criminality but mindful of the fact that the rich couples they conduct their transactions with may have less sympathetic intentions. They are far from cruel or clueless hucksters. And rather than solely track their exploits, Kore-eda’s screenplay complicates the dynamic by introducing a third spoke in So-young (Ji-eun Lee), a young woman who tags along to ensure the parents who will adopt her child are up to the task. 

Lee’s performance, one of roiling internal ambivalence, is such that we trust there's more at play than someone out to absolve themselves of their guilt. The story is motivated less by clear narrative mileposts than by revealing the sympathies of its characters, and in their conversations – ranging from bickering to sarcasm to story-shifting revelations – Kore-eda explores the nuanced differences in what selling So-young’s child means to them individually, as well as what the varying payouts may represent in moral terms. All the while, “Broker” unfolds with soft narrative lilts, graceful pivots and a rejection of traditional authority trying to worm its way in. Sentimentality threatens to tip into hokum when the score twangs like a travel commercial and a carwash visit devolves into cheaply rendered catharsis, but more often than not Kore-eda has his hand on the tonal rudder. “Just trying to lightening the mood,” Sang-hyeon says at one point, and you’ve got to chuckle. As if it could be any lighter. 

Western audiences who have recently warmed to the propulsive crossover hits of South Korean cinema might be caught off-guard by Kore-eda’s “Broker,” which has about as much in common with “Parasite” as “Top Gun: Maverick” has with “Tár.” You can understand the confusion; after 2019’s French-language “The Truth,” Broker is just the second film Kore-eda has made outside his native Japan. Given that his narrative interests remain matters of different kinds of families, his primary cinematic tools warmth and patience, the shift is a curious one. Does Kore-eda view the cultural transposition of his stories as a way to validate their universality?

That may be overthinking it. This is a filmmaker, after all, who wears his heart on his sleeve and builds his ensembles’ connections like a beautiful mosaic you wouldn’t notice unless looking down at your feet or up at the ceiling. Kore-eda knows better than most how to transpose the everyday beauty of life to the screen in a way that conjures up its own kind of magic, whether in a melancholy Ferris wheel-set confessional or the nighttime parting words of a group that finds solace where everyone else – including the multiple pursuers on their tail – only sees something to scold. 

There comes a point about midway through “Broker” when circumstances turn thornier; a palette bursting with sunshine gives way to shadowier compositions; and we realize that while our brokers may in fact be the least morally compromised of the film’s characters, togetherness can only get them so far in confronting deeper-rooted reckonings. It takes a village to raise a child, yes, and sometimes it takes a child to unite the village. 

"Broker" is rated R for some language. It's now screening in some San Antonio theaters. Runtime: 2 hours, 9 minutes. 

Starring: Song Kang-ho, Gang Dong-won, Bae Doona, Ji-eun Lee

Directed and written by Hirokazu Kore-eda




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