The first Korean film from Japanese director Kore-eda sees a departure from his low-fi family drama as we follow the aftermath of a baby being stolen from a church drop-off box
Boasting a vast catalogue of film festival winning works ranging back to the 1980s, when news of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first Korean film broke anticipation rose that his affecting character studies would be given a local flavour.
However, while his previous works in his native Japan obsessed over the family unit and often moved at a leisurely pace, in ‘Broker’ Kore-eda has produced a more Korean outing. The narrative arc is more pronounced, the drama tweaked upwards. Here we get a dose of human trafficking, prostitutes on the run and gangsters in close pursuit.
As you might imagine from perhaps Japan’s finest modern director, he was able to call upon Korean screen royalty for his casting requirements, bringing together the likes of Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder, Parasite) and Bae Doona (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, The Host), the latter of which worked as the lead in Kore-eda's 'Air Doll' in Japan.
Song is a perfect piece of casting – a lovable rogue, perhaps only Song could play a child trafficker and muster audience sympathy almost from the start. He plays Sang-hyeon, a laundry operator who volunteers at a local church alongside Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won – The Priests, Illang: The Wolf Brigade).
Despite the pair’s pious undertaking, they use their role to take babies which have been left in the church’s baby box, designed to allow parents to leave their children with the opening of a small door in the wall of the church.
When a young mother, So-young (Lee Ji-eun), abandons her baby in the box, the pair take the child for sale on the black market. However, matters become complicated when So-young returns the following day to reclaim her baby, but the church knows nothing of her child.
The pair decide to let So-young know of their intentions and she opts to join them on the road in finding a buyer. Meanwhile, detectives Soo-jin (Bae Doona) and Lee (Lee Joo-young) are following the group, intent on pouncing during the actual human trafficking act.
What ‘Broker’ does well is a common theme of Kore-eda’s work – shining a light on societal issues of concern that are too often ignored. He is particularly interested in those who have been left behind, despite finding themselves in rich metropolitan cities. There was a danger that such messaging could be lost in this more narrative-dense work, but ‘Broker’ still manages to unpack ethical discussions around adoption, murder and the family construct.
The film perhaps works best as a simple buddy road movie. This unlikely combination of people – older human traffickers, a young mother and her baby, find more common ground than imaginable. Their connections often hinge on the common theme of rejection. Each of them living a life of marginalisation until they find each other.
There is a pending sense of doom that such connections are set to be torn apart once again though. By then, you have established more empathy that you could have imagined towards human traffickers and a mother who left her baby in a box.
Kore-eda has given a Korean-tint to his body of work and produces an intriguing view of the family unit, rejection and desperation in the process.