I always get excited when a new Hirokazu Koreeda movie is coming out. Koreeda is maybe our most empathetic filmmaker, finding these incredible, complicated real life tales of societal outcasts. Broker shows Koreeda can work just as well outside of Japan, finding the fringes of South Korean society and bringing their tales to the fore, with as big of a heart as he can.
Broker opens in the middle of the night, as So-young Moon (Ji-eun Lee) leaves her newborn baby at a “Baby Box” in a church, heartbreakingly indicating this is a common practice. The baby ends up in the hands of Sang-hyeon Ha (Song Kang-Ho) and Dong-soo Hyung (Gang Dong-won), who indirectly work for the church behind the scenes as brokers – men who search for good families of abandoned children. So-young immediately regrets her decision, and goes in search of her child, leading her to the two men, which pisses her off. Reluctantly, she inserts herself into the broking, wanting the best for her baby. Unbeknownst to all of them, detectives Lee (Joo-young Lee) and Soo-jin (Doona Bae), are following them around waiting to arrest them, because, technically, a broker is a human trafficker and potentially a kidnapper.
What a messy web! But this is the brilliance of Hirokazu Koreeda. He knows messy is interesting, and this particular type of messy deserves to have a light shined upon it. Early on, a character in Koreeda’s mostly wonderful screenplays mentions “benevolence,” which is the perfect word to describe every person in this scenario. Social services for young single mothers in Korea are poor enough that it creates markets for brokers to exist, usually at the expense of the poor child. In a Koreeda screenplay, it is humanity that overcomes this unfeeling force in the form of all the players of our cast. Circumstances and context lead them to make these bad decisions, but does not mean they are necessarily bad people. When given second chances, even seemingly vile selfish people like So-young prove they can rise to the occasion if the circumstances change. The legal layer further confuses things, because every non cop is basicially committing a crime, but with good intentions. This case really hits Soo-jin hard, as she struggled to become a parent but uncovers a host of complications that cause her to rethink her quick judgments of everyone involved. The ending of Broker gets a bit saccharine, but a story built on good intentions deserves some in return.
Koreeda also remembers life is a simultaneous mixture of comedy and tragedy; sadness hits WAY harder if you’ve been laughing along the way. The writer/director’s script and his cast really mine as many laughs as you can about this heartbreaking plight, in all manner of ways. I definitely laughed hardest at Koreeda’s insights into selling a baby to a couple. Nothing is funnier than Song Kang Ho trying to blacken a baby’s eyebrows to make him look more manly, or have two desperate parents nit picking random little things about a kid’s appearance, clearly devoid of any empathy towards the situation. There’s great sight gag humor with a Little Miss Sunshine like used van, where the claustrophobia has the cast wonderfully sniping at one another for our amusement or maneuvering during an impromptu indoor car wash. Koreeda is one of the best at using little humorous tangents to keep our attention on dramatic scenes. One in particular So-young and Dong-soo are having this little moment, and turn off the lights, where promptly Sang-hyeon whines that he cannot finish his dinner in the dark. Perfection. Plus if that’s not working, Koreeda gives us laughter incarnate in the form of 6 year old Hae-jin (Seung-soo Im) who’s funny everytime he opens his mouth. And because Koreeda is a master, all that laughing is in service of the story, and used a lot as defense mechanisms which transition scenes into something more dramatic, making everyone’s heart ache a little harder because of how great a hang this group is despite the sucky situation.
Everyone has a story. Hirokazu Koreeda knows this better than most. Broker continues his track record of shining a light on the forgotten stories on the fringes of society, reminding everyone that even in the darkness light can find a way to shine through. Plus, it’s more fun if you think that Sang-hyeun’s backstory is the patriarch in Parasite, since they’re both played by Song Kang Ho, and even MORE fun if you think Doona Bae’s cop is right out of Cloud Atlas…but which Doona Bae is it?