Arts Film Review Singapore

★★★★☆ Review: Broker 브로커 dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda

Societal misfits find a sense of belonging in this tender Korean drama by Kore-eda.

Over the years, the road trip movie has been done numerous times, across nationalities, age, and genre. But one thing that has always remained a constant is how by the end of the journey, the ones who’ve traversed countless obstacles, encountered one event after another, and so much distance together, come through with a bond that’s stronger than ever.

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters), the award-winning auteur’s latest film might take place in a different country from his home country of Japan, but still contains everything he’s come to be known for – the use of younger child actors, sharp commentary on urban loneliness and distance, and of course, his focus on the concept of broken, unusual family units. For the cast of Broker, this takes the form of a found family, comprised of a band of societal misfits unexpectedly brought together through the illegal practice of selling unwanted newborns.

The brains behind the operation is Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), the owner of a launderette and a volunteer at the nearby church in Busan, and uses the money accrued from the business to pay off mounting loans owed to a local gang. Working together with him is Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), who works for the church’s orphanage. With the church’s ‘baby box’, where unwanted babies can be dropped off, Sang-heyon and Dong-soo occasionally steal these babies, delete the CCTV footage, and sell the children on the adoption black market.

One particular case changes their operations however, when a young mother So-young (Lee Ji-eun aka IU) regrets her choice and returns to claim her baby. Taking pity on her, Dong-soo comes clean to her, and together, all three go on a road trip to find the perfect buyer and prospective parents for So-young’s child.

This journey however, is far from easy, as they encounter buyers who prove themselves more interested in the baby’s looks than well-being, a resentful grandmother who calls on a gang’s assistance to retrieve the baby by force, and two detectives, Soo-jin (Bae Doona) and Detective Lee (Lee Joo-young), who tail the motley crew in an attempt to catch them red-handed in the act. Yet somehow, working together, the crew manages to keep moving on with their search, and eventually wind up in Seoul, where they finally encounter the ‘perfect’ couple.

Kore-eda isn’t one for melodrama or theatrics, and Broker is similarly, a quiet film that prides the crew’s dynamics and the audience getting to know them on an intimate level, revealing each of their backstories as the film progresses. The crew visit the orphanage Dong-soo himself was from (and even pick up a stowaway that joins their found family), So-young reveals that she’s on the run from the law after killing the baby’s father, and Sang-hyeon gets a bittersweet reunion with his estranged daughter.

The film is expertly cast, and while mostly understated in their performance, each member commits entirely to their characters, and make it believable that they go from complete strangers to a makeshift, oddball family by its end. Lee Ji-eun works well to start off feisty and defensive, before eventually working to shed her cold exterior and reveal her own fears and vulnerabilities. Gang Dong-won always feels like a reliable rock amidst the stormy currents the group keeps finding themselves in, and when he eventually breaks, is a deeply emotional moment whose impact is felt. Bae Doona and Lee Joo-young, while primarily more for comic relief as an odd couple, still feel like an ever-growing threat to the main crew as they continue to scheme and plot a trap. And Song Kang-ho is rightfully deserving of his Best Actor nod at Cannes 2022, in what is perhaps one of his most subtle but impactful roles yet, holding back from overacting and delivering quiet pain beneath a cheery exterior.

Above all, Kore-eda’s deft hand at directing brings the locales visited by the crew to life, each one imbued with their own individual personalities, almost as much as the characters themselves. For the most part, these locales feel almost isolated, almost always away from crowds as these characters from the fringes of society navigate their way around them, felt particularly strongly in Busan, which seems to exist on the edge between urban loneliness and the brink of rural peace. This is in contrast to Seoul, which immediately feels like a much jauntier, lively space filled with people and social spaces, from theme parks to cafes, a place teeming with skyscrapers and towering hotels as a space of business, almost overwhelming for the characters. It’s an integral element that allows the characters to feel as if they’re inhabiting a brand new space each time they step out of the car, embarking on the next chapter of their trip.

The actions of the crew in Broker may not strictly fall within the confines of the law, but their actions are ultimately in good faith – to unite an abandoned child with a family that will love them (for the right price). It’s an important distinction that reminds us how all of these people are good at heart, and allows them to see and appreciate the good in each other, finding joy in the little moments, from a carwash to a speech about gratitude for each other in a cramped hotel room. These unexpected sparks of light amidst a decidedly heavy topic are precisely what makes Kore-eda a master of the family film, addressing lesser known social topics and imbuing them with a poignancy with his well-developed, deeply nuanced characters, and make Broker a must-watch for Kore-eda fans and anyone looking to find hope in humanity during these difficult times.

Broker opens across cinemas, including Golden Village, from 23rd June 2022. Tickets and details available here

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