4 April 2023

Broker is a Japanese Korean baby-trafficking road movie, and it's strangely moving

| Marcus Kelson
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group of people holding baby

Broker is a road movie of sorts, with a very unusual cast of characters. Photo: Supplied.

Stealing babies from baby boxes at church orphanages is a pretty unusual premise for a film, but that’s exactly how the new Korean/Japanese film Broker begins.

A young woman, So-young (Li Ji-eun, who is also a singer under the stage name IU) leaves her newborn baby Woo-sung on the doorstep with a note saying “I’ll be back”. The facility is under police surveillance because they know there’s a racket going on.

One of the two racketeers, Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), who works at the facility, takes the baby, wipes the videotape and plans with his friend to sell the child to parents who cannot conceive.

But So-young returns the next day, discovers what the pair are up to, and decides she wants to find out who the baby finally ends up with.

A road trip begins with these four unlikely characters. They pick up another older child who stowed away in their truck while visiting Dong-soo’s childhood orphanage and set about meeting prospective parents while being closely followed by two female police officers, Soo-jin (Bae Doona) and Detective Lee (Lee Joo-young.)

But what makes this such an intriguing piece of work are the characters and the conversations.

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The film is mostly anchored by laundromat owner Ha Sang-hyeon, played by the sublime Song Kang-ho (The Host, Snowpiercer, Parasite), who is trafficking kids to pay off a gambling debt.

He is world-weary, his child barely speaks to him and his ex-wife is pregnant again. Everything he’s ever had has turned into a disaster. He remains strangely optimistic in the face of all the difficulties, but there’s great trouble in him too.

The movie is written and directed by Japanese filmmaker Hirozaku Kore-eda (The Truth, Shoplifters, After the Storm).

“The first thing that I thought of when I thought about this film was Song Kang-ho in the priest costume, opening the baby box, holding the baby and in that smile of his, talking to the baby saying, ‘oh, we’ll be happy, don’t worry’. But the next day he would go on to sell the baby,” he said.

“That was what I had in my mind. That sense of what Song Kang-ho possesses – the duality of both good and evil at the same time – that’s what I saw in my head.”

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But this is no one-man show. Clearly, Dong-soo’s all too troubled childhood has led him here and we find So-young also has some very dark secrets of her own.

As in most of his work, Kore-eda enjoys the idea of collecting people to see how they work, not quite like a family in the traditional sense but also exactly like that.

“In Broker, you could interpret what’s happening within the car journey as a proxy family, but I think it’s more about how each character will deal with a life that is being born from different perspectives.”

The other great joy in this film – which is largely driven by all characters slowly opening up to each other – is its generosity of spirit.

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The stowaway child from the orphanage, Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo), provides some necessary light relief, because this rather gentle film still has at its core very difficult decisions all the characters face, either together or as individuals.

And as we learn more about unlikely baby traffickers, there is a second and equally important story unfolding between the two police officers.

Bae Doona, who also starred in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and the Korean remake of The Ring, begins the film as unfriendly and taciturn, but like almost everyone surrounding this baby she starts to warm up and eventually strikes up a friendship of sorts with his mother.

Broker is a most unusual of films and a lot of unusual things take place within it, but what drives the narrative is the capacity and warmth of the human heart and what people will do to help. Broker receives four stars out of five.

Broker is s screening at Dendy and Palace Electric.

Marcus Kelson is a Canberra writer and film critic.

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Stephen Saunders11:05 am 10 Apr 23

A laboured (so to speak) mess, from a director I love. Had to rewatch Our Little Sister, to cheer myself up.

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