Broker Hirokazu Kore-eda

With Broker, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda goes mainstream but stays focused

3.5 out of 5 stars

Though it would be reductive to say that Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda only makes one kind of movie, it would be accurate to say that the latter part of his career has focused on variations on a theme. Kore-eda’s films seem singularly concerned with the idea of family and the way in which the cohesion of the family unit (or lack thereof) governs our lives whether or not we want them to. His unfussy, slice-of-life films present characters coming to grips with their relatives, the expectations and customs brought upon by them or the repercussions that come with changes (often permanent) to the family unit.

After Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or win with the excellent Shoplifters, the filmmaker began to stray somewhat from his path by going outside of his native Japan… to make movies about families. His followup to the coolly-received French film The Truth sees Kore-eda back in Asia but taking on the audience-friendly beats of a different industry. Shot in South Korea with a mostly Korean cast and crew, Broker has a slightly different, somewhat more commercial flavour than his previous work, though it circles back thematically sooner rather than later.

Dong-soo (Gang Dong Won) works at a neighbourhood church where orphaned children are raised while awaiting adoption. Many of these children come from the “baby box,” a hatch on the outside of the church where parents leave unwanted babies to be raised as orphans by the church. Dong-soo and his friend Ha-sang Hyeon (Song Kang-Ho), a dry cleaner owner and ex-con, run a lucrative side hustle swiping babies from the box and erasing the evidence, allowing them to then sell the kids to couples who cannot legally adopt for a myriad of reasons. An orphan and product of the system himself, Dong-soo firmly believes that what he does gives children a better chance at growing up loved.

Hirokazu Kore-eda Broker

Things take a turn for the complicated when baby Woo-sung is left in the box, swiped by the two men and immediately reclaimed by Moon So-young (Li Ji-eun), the child’s mother, who both regrets her choice and knows that she cannot raise the child herself for reasons that soon become clear when two cops (Bae Doona and Lee Joo-young) turn up tailing the ersatz family. The three have taken it upon themselves to tour Korea in a van and interview potential families for the child, hoping to obtain both a sizable payday and peace of mind in the process.

With its detective subplot and motley crew of characters (including an adorable bowl-cut-sporting orphan named Hae-jin, who decides to secretly tag along), Broker’s plot resembles a quirky Sundance hopeful (or even, in its broadest strokes, Raising Arizona!) more than it does Kore-eda’s more languid, less aggressively written efforts. As with many of his previous films, Kore-eda works with tremendous patience to sketch out his characters piece-by-piece, often revealing massively important details in throwaway lines and even lining up bits of character development that purposely lead nowhere. A film like Shoplifters has plenty of room for that to unfold; Broker, replete with fairly mainstream road-trip clichés and its police investigation subplot, finds it a little harder to weave these in.

That’s not to say that Broker is a sell-out move by Kore-eda. From a purely plastic point of view, Kore-eda’s style is still very much to be found, although the flowery yogurt commercial score by Squid Game and Parasite composer Jung Jae-il pales in comparison to the work of Haruomi Hosono on Shoplifters. If dogged cops slurping stakeout noodles, cute children, underworld dealings, poop jokes and babies with drawn-on eyebrows don’t exactly seem to be part and parcel with the work of the man who made Nobody Knows and Still Waiting, Kore-eda continues to explore his pet themes with uncommon insight and patience. 

He slowly ekes out the picture of a dysfunctional chosen family where everyone holds some guilt, regret and even jealousy over the very notion of parenthood. Moon So-young is torn over the idea that she has brought a life into a chaotic, untenable situation, while Dong-soo seems to have made it his life’s mission to save kids from chaotic, untenable situations one at a time. Rawer notions of parenthood — who deserves to have a child and doesn’t vs. who has a child and doesn’t deserve them — are brought bubbling up to the surface. It’s often touching, even if the film’s overtly mechanical premise constantly pokes its head in to interrupt moments of pure Kore-eda.

With Broker, Kore-eda finds himself in an enviable position that quite a few filmmakers of his stature have found themselves in: having made so many great movies with similar thematic concerns that he now creates disappointment merely by having made a very good film that’s kind of like the others. Truth be told, Kore-eda has always had considerable mainstream appeal — who wouldn’t lean into it a little? ■

Broker (directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda)

Broker opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Jan. 13.

For the latest in film and TV, please visit our Film & TV section.