.Kore-eda’s crime story ‘Broker’ is beautifully, heartbreakingly sad

At first glance, Broker appears to be a sinister crime story with an especially disturbing angle. In contemporary Busan, South Korea, two men are in the business of “stealing” unwanted infants left in “safe baby drop-off” boxes, then selling the retrieved babies to interested customers, with the assumed (but not too carefully vetted) expectation that the purchasers are innocent, childless civilians yearning to become parents. 

The two men’s little racket is upset when a young woman follows up on the whereabouts of the baby boy she recently left behind—her own newborn son—and confronts the baby brokers, demanding to know where her erstwhile offspring is going to wind up. At the same time, two undercover police officers are surveilling the brokers as well as the birth mother—the police officers are investigating a suspected illegal child trafficking operation. Simultaneously with all this, gangsters are on the trail of the same baby boy and the brokers, for murky reasons of their own (to be divulged as the film unwinds). 

Sounds like a sordid, queasy-making situation all around, until one realizes that Broker is written and directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, the Japanese filmmaker behind Shoplifters, After the Storm and Like Father, Like Son. In his career of 27 features, Kore-eda has specialized in seemingly messy, ultimately sincere and humanistic stories of individuals who have a common denominator: They all belong, or desperately want to belong, to a family of some sort. To be part of a cohesive group, to feel safe and wanted inside a family structure, even a family of petty thieves or child kidnappers.

That formula pretty neatly describes the baby brokers and their associates. Sang-hyeon (played by Song Kang-ho from Parasite and Snowpiercer) is the affable owner of a dry-cleaning business with unresolved issues in his past family life and a worrisome gambling debt. His accomplice, Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), is a former orphan. So-young (Lee Ji-eun), the birth mother of the baby in question, is an assertive prostitute looking to go straight—with other, nastier issues to feel guilty about.

The baby at the center of things is Woo-sung (played by juvie non-actor Park Ji-yong). Add to them an unattached little boy named Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo), who strongly desires to be adopted, and there’s a vanload of lonely characters in search of, well… more or less a normal family sitcom style of life, sitting around in a motel room eating fast food and watching TV. What the hell; it’s home.

Life on the road is not entirely a jittery web of suspense. Shenanigans ensue, as when mischievous tyke Hae-jin accidentally leaves the van window open while the vehicle moves through a car wash and everybody gets soaked. The “family members” have trouble keeping their stories straight when dealing with a hospital—viewers can see the personalities growing on each other before their eyes. Viewers also learn the market rate for a Korean no-questions-asked adoption: Boys go for 10 million won (roughly U.S. $7,860); girls for 8 million. Customers seeking children have all sorts of reasons. 

Song Kang-ho has developed international stature as a character actor because of his work for Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho, and Kore-eda takes full advantage of Song’s happy-go-lucky screen presence. Broker’s baby merchants are decidedly not hard cases simply motivated by greed, and neither is actor Lee’s luckless anti-ingenue So-young. So-young is important to Broker because she demonstrates that even promiscuous people can have legitimate feelings, to paraphrase Warren Beatty’s comment about his character in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo

It’s easy to feel sorry for castaway kids and regret-ridden adults who never quite grew up, but it’s much more difficult to reconcile the apparent sleaziness of this film’s outsiders with the look that Song’s Sang-hyeon gets on his face when he’s told that he doesn’t belong in his long-lost daughter’s life any more. That’s the Kore-eda touch, and that’s what makes it so beautifully sad. 

In theaters 

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