Broker is always going to be a tough sell after the heights of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters, because this much looser, less hard-hitting film explicitly retreads some of that film’s territory in a minor mode. So, where Shoplifters dealt with a recomposed family of criminals who commit petty crimes to get by, the South Korean Broker centers on a group of individuals committing a crime (child-trafficking) who, in the course of that crime, develop a familial connection of sorts. Shoplifters’ strength was that its lovely façade hid a world of pain; its characters were driven to the brink by their misery, and family bonds could finally not bridge the distance between them. Broker sort of flips this narrative by bringing devastated people together and suggesting that their rudimentary kinship can be a salve for their sorrow. In this sense, Broker occasionally tips into a sentimental vein, which can detract from its substantial qualities.
The beginning of Broker sees a desperate young woman, So-young (Lee Ji-eun, a South Korean pop star better known as IU), abandoning her baby at a local church that has a deposit box for unwanted babies. In this, she is observed by two police officers, who are investigating a scam run from within the organization by two men. The men in question, Sang-hyun and Dong-soo (played by Bong Joon-ho veteran Song Kang-ho and the touching Gang Dong-won) are fraudsters, who steal one out of a certain number of babies left in the hatch and sell it on for a profit, having worked out that most mothers leaving infants there never return to claim their child back. Unfortunately for them, So-young is not like other people (among other things, she is wanted for murder), and after becoming wise to their scheme and realizing there’s a buck to be made, she asks to tag along on their road trip of sorts to sell the baby off to prospective buyers. They are joined along the way by a stowaway boy from an orphanage, whose cute presence (Kore-eda’s one big weakness as a filmmaker is his fondness for an adorable child) gives this ragtag group a slightly-too-quirky vibe. Followed by the two female detectives, the group set off.
This setup is absolutely juicy with possibilities, and Kore-eda exploits all of these well. In particular, his limber attitude toward family is in evidence throughout, in scenes where both Sang-hyun and Dong-soo pretend to be the baby’s father to various officials they meet along the way. A potential romance also appears to be brewing between Dong-soo and So-young. Kore-eda manages to evince comedy, and a humanity that seems to spring from nowhere, out of this desperate premise—as when the cops try to ambush the gang by hooking them up with actors pretending to be a couple hoping to buy the baby: Dong-soo manages to foil them by asking for details of their fertility treatment. The cops’ rehearsals with their hopeless actors are beautifully played out.
The tricky balance in Broker, which Kore-eda does not always keep a handle on, is in weighting the gentle humanity of this story (the growing fondness between these characters, and for the little baby in their guardianship, is very intricately sketched) and the possible slide into sentimentalism or cloying quirk. One scene in which the gang go through a car wash, and the cheeky boy opens a window, drenching everybody, seems to exist for no other reason than to provide heartwarming feel-good factor. The film’s score, also, consisting of maudlin piano and soft arpeggios of Spanish guitar, also becomes obvious and syrupy at times; a viewer can only take so much warmth. In Shoplifters, the film’s acidity balanced out these more honeyed dimensions; Broker has very little lemon with which to temper its sweetness. This is surprising, because the film deals with child trafficking, sex work, murder, abandonment; and yet the anguish, pain, misery occasioned by these things don’t really hit home. That means that Broker is too undifferentiated; that its tone sometimes overpowers its purpose. A bittersweet finale, after a false ending that seemed to bring tragedy to Broker, feels as though Kore-eda was frightened of hurting us too much.
Kore-eda is an exceptional writer, and he accordingly marshals his team of misfits well; there can be something heart-stopping about a moment when two characters slow down and finally see each other beyond their first impressions, as when So-young and Dong-soo talk to each other properly in a Ferris wheel, revealing something of their soul to one another after so much frantic activity; and Kore-eda also imbues this road movie film with a romantic verve, which pushes it along very nicely. It’s only a shame that he hasn’t trusted himself to twist the knife when the moment came, instead lightly brushing us with its blade.