Hirokazu Kore-eda has devoted much of his career to waxing lyrical on makeshift family units and the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps resolve of those living on the margins, recurring themes in his signature films Shoplifters and Nobody Knows. He continues exploring these concepts with Broker, though this time in South Korea instead of his native Japan.
If offered spots in the Squid Game, most of the characters in Broker would probably sign up. Song Kang-ho, most memorable as ne’er-do-well types in Parasite and The Host, plays Sang-hyun, a dry cleaner facing steep gambling debts. He also moonlights as a pastor at the Busan Family Church and dabbles in human trafficking with infants left in the church’s baby box. Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won, Train To Busan Presents: Peninsula), an orphan who has grown up to work for the church, serves as Sang-hyun’s accomplice, erasing surveillance footage of the baby box.
So-young (Lee Ji-eun, better known as K-pop superstar IU) leaves her child at the baby box one night during a downpour, only to return the next day seemingly with a change of heart. Dong-soo feigns ignorance of her baby’s whereabouts at first, but ultimately leads her to Sang-hyun for fear that she may contact the authorities. Once she learns of their plan to sell her child, So-young wants in on the action and to ensure he’ll end up in a good home. They all hop into a beat-up van and drive off to meet prospective buyers in Yeongdeok. Meanwhile, two cops in the female youth division (Bae Doona and Lee Joo-young) are hot on the trail and waiting to catch the titular “brokers” in the act.
As with the characters in Shoplifters, Sang-hyun, Dong-soo, So-young, her infant, and Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo), an 8-year-old from the orphanage who stowed away in the van, form a surrogate family that’s quite functional in practice. As they contemplate ways to keep up the charade, there’s tacit acceptance that their happy time together is running out. Hae-jin occasionally provides some comic relief, but he is there mainly to verbalize what So-young’s son can’t express. The subplots are mostly unmemorable, meant as character evidence that these folks are decent deep down in spite of how they act out of desperation.
Song is dependable in a role he can by now play in his sleep. The more interesting choice is casting IU against type. She can be described as K-pop’s Taylor Swift; in case there’s doubt, just compare the covers of IU’s Palette and Swift’s 1989. Both artists write their own music, dominate the charts, and boast a goody-two-shoes public images. But while Swift’s turns in Cats and Amsterdam don’t seem much of a stretch for her, it’s nearly unfathomable that IU is playing an unwed mother. She’s effective for the most part, though noticeably nonchalant in the scene where So-young’s infant goes missing.
Visually, Broker marks a departure for Kore-eda, who works here with a Korean crew instead of frequent collaborators like cinematographers Yutaka Yamazaki and Mikiya Takimoto. The film also looks much better on a small screen, signaling an improved outlook on streaming platforms. Overall, the film has a deliberate pace befitting a road movie.
Though Kore-eda began his career as a documentarian, his positions on social issues are far from neutral. He reveres the resilience of those who have been dealt a bad hand in life, a sentiment that certainly shines through in Broker.