By Michael Sicinski
First things first: Broker, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Korean sojourn, is considerably more competent than The Truth (2019), his ill-considered foray into superstar French cinema. But this is faint praise indeed. Broker finds the Japanese master transplanting his standard template with little in the way of cultural specificity or variation. His recent popularity has been directly proportional to his open embrace of schmaltz, and despite some surface alterations in narrative, Broker is yet another of the director’s musings on the concept of family, biological vs. circumstantial or chosen. Where Like Father, Like Son (2013) proceeds from a hospital baby-switch, and Our Little Sister (2015) disrupts the family unit with the introduction of a half-sister, both Shoplifters (2018) and Broker ramp up the pathos by assembling surrogate families from society’s cast-offs and unfortunates.
Practically speaking, Broker is a partial remix of Shoplifters and Like Father, Like Son, since here the abandoned baby is going to be sold by shady ne’er-do-wells, the situation leading to a collection of lonely hearts who sort of stumble into a sense of belonging. It’s hard to know whether it was the novelty of working in Korean or just a conscious decision to stick with what he knows, but Kore-eda doubles down on his signature moves here, if anything propping them up with an even more aggressive plot armature.
So-young (Lee Ji-eun), a young mother on the run from the law, leaves her newborn son Woosong at a church’s anonymous infant depository for his safety. Two “baby brokers” (a.k.a. human traffickers) intercept the child for illegal sale. As we gradually learn, Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) is haunted by the family he left behind years ago, while his partner, Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), was an orphan himself, his financial venture a not-so-subtle way of coping with his own demons. To move the plot along, the brokers (with So-young in tow) are pursued by a pair of cops. The more tenacious of the two, Soo-jin (Bae Doona), is driven by both a need to prove herself professionally, and a compulsion to punish someone who is, in her eyes, an objectively unfit mother.
For good measure, there are a few stray gangsters, an older orphan (Im Seung-soo) who stows away with the crew, and the introduction of potential buyers, some real and some part of Soo-jin’s entrapment scheme. Despite this fussy, overstuffed narrative, Broker moves at a tedious pace, partly because Kore-eda’s outlines are always so clearly visible. No one is bad, not even murderers, because there are always extenuating circumstances. And all concerned learn the true meaning of family, which isn’t mutual support, much less happiness: it’s about sacrifice, trying to give the next generation a fighting chance so they might do better than we did. Broker’s melancholy bromides are hardly revelatory, and much less than we might reasonably expect from the man who made Maborosi (1995), Distance (2001), and Still Walking (2008). But from a commercial standpoint, I suppose if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.