Broker by Hirokazu Koreeda, starring acclaimed actor Song Kang-ho and K-Pop star Lee Ji-eun, is a heartwarming tragi-comic Korean drama about families that form themselves by choice not birth.
Modern Familyby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Broker’s director Hirokazu Koreeda is known for empathetic, humane dramas such as 2018’s Palme d’or winner Shoplifters (2018). Heartwarming Broker was planned at the same time: it too looks at what bonds make a family – is it birth or choice?
It’s the Japanese director’s first film set in Korea and in Korean, inspired by its ‘baby boxes’ – hatches, that look rather like a bank’s night safe, outside churches where unwanted babies can be deposited anonymously.
So-young (cutely beautiful and superb, huge K-Pop star turned actress IU or Lee Ji-eun, Hotel del Luna) reluctantly leaves her baby, watched by two female police officers, Bae Doona (The Host, Airdoll, Cloud Atlas) and her sidekick Lee Joo-young (Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo, Itaewon Class). Koreeda plays with the trope of surveillance officers stuck in their car constantly eating.
Watching inside the church are employee Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won, Train To Busan: Peninsula, A Violent Prosecutor, Secret Reunion) and an older volunteer Sang-hyeon (the peerless Song Kang-ho from Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite), who have a sideline together selling the unwanted babies that are left here on the black market to childless couples – baby brokers. They justify their activities as preferable to the child growing up in an orphanage. They take So-young’s abandoned baby to sell, deleting the CCTV footage.
To their surprise, next morning So-young comes back for her baby, adorable Woo-sung. But it’s too late, he’s already been sold and there’s no trace of his being left at the church because Dong-soo erased it. Dong-soo takes So-young to see that her baby is being cared for beautifully by kindly Sang-hyeon at his shabby backstreet laundry shop. She shocks the two baby traffickers by wanting a share in their profits and approval of the prospective parents.
And so the trio start on what seems at first to be a hapless road trip in Sang-yeon’s cranky old van to disparate Korean cities to deliver the baby to buyers they thought they had a deal with but who now find fault with Woo-sung and turn them down. On a visit to an orphanage, we discover that Dong-soo himself was an abandoned and adopted child and we later learn the back story of Sang-hyeon’s lost family and why he so desperately needs money. These revelations add extra layers to the characters.
Broker has a complicated, tragi-comic, crowded plot with many twists. The two baby traffickers – the incompetent brokers – Dong-soo and Sang-hyeon, are likeable and very human. So-young turns out not to be as innocent as she seemed at first. Precocious road-trip surprise-stowaway Hae-jin (Seung-soo Im) is an 8-year-old orphan runaway who wants to be adopted and thinks he has found a family, The two policewomen wanting to arrest them in the act, and two murderous sets of gangsters, all chase after Sang-hyeon’s dilapidated van for different reasons.
During their time together, all four generations – surrogate grandfather, couple, child and baby – bond into a temporary, surrogate family.
As they grow closer, Koreeda’s directorial hallmark is that each celebrates the humanity and worth of the others despite their character flaws.
There’s real life-affirming joy. We can’t help liking the characters in this fabulous line-up of Korean acting talent, even though what the characters do is reprehensible.
Stay for the final sequence if you want to find out what happens to this unlikely self-made family.
Koreeda’s previous films, as well as the award-winning Shoplifters, are Like Father Like Son, After Life, I Wish.
Broker premiered in the Official Selection at the Cannes Film Festival, where it had a 12-minute standing ovation, and is released on 24 February 2023 in the UK.
Click here to see the Cannes press conference.