That families can come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations is perhaps one of the most important lessons to be shared and learned, especially these days. It’s a theme that renowned Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda has long explored in a gentle but masterful way in such acclaimed films as Like Father, Like Son, Our Little Sister, After the Storm and the Oscar-winning nominated “Palm Tree” of 2018 explores d’Or-winning “Shoplifters”.
This latest film, which was about a makeshift “family” of petty thieves who stole to make ends meet, is nominally found in the writer-director’s latest work (and his first, which appears in South Korea was filmed), a poignant, bittersweet, let’s call it what it is: human trafficking.
But for the film’s so-called brokers, Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho, the father in “Parasite”) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), whose business involves stealing infants from the Busan Family Church’s “baby box” (a wall depot for abandoned newborns) and whose sale for adoption is not just about money. Far from it.
Sure, Sang-hyeon, who runs a hand wash, and cohort Dong-soo, who works at said church, could use the dough; Times are short and Sang-hyeon is at the head of the local mafia.
But the two also want to be sure to find good, immediate homes for these children and help expectant parents evade the time-consuming bureaucracy of the country’s complex legal adoption system. The men also have personal reasons for their more high-minded approach to this particular criminal ruse: Sang-hyeon is divorced and wants to see families together, while Dong-soo grew up in an orphanage and finds himself in every forgotten child. (He knows firsthand that when a mother who throws away her child says she’ll come back, she rarely, if ever, is.)
The operation apparently went pretty smoothly for Sang-hyeon and insider Dong-soo, who knows how to erase evidence of her “withdrawal” from the baby box from the church’s security cameras. That all changes, however, when runaway 15-year-old sex worker So-young (K-pop star Lee Ji-eun, aka IU) drops her unwanted child off at church, only to have her actions quickly reconsidered. But not before Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo have already stolen the child.
More cinematic than believable (but just go along with it), this leads the initially furious So-Young to join the boys on their quest to find an acceptable parenting couple for the baby – and share in the loot, of course. The film then moves into road movie territory, complete with a brawler vehicle, improved shot, connecting moments and a surprise stowaway, a cute and feisty orphan boy named Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo). Did someone say “found family”?
Meanwhile, all of this is being observed by two detectives, Soo-jin (Bae Doona) and Lee (Lee Joo-young), who are working to bust the underground company. You just have to catch Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo in an actual sale. And like the suspects, Soo-jin has her own share in the fate of these children.
There’s certainly enough potential chaos, desperation, and danger here (including the gangsters on Sang-hyeon’s tail) that Broker would have turned into a dark, propulsive action-drama in the hands of a different filmmaker. But Kore-eda focuses on – and encourages – the grace notes, the better angels, and the full soul of its characters in such a loving and relatable way that we’re grateful for its humanistic, more empathetic priorities. To his added credit, he manages to do it all without getting too sentimental about things.
That’s not to say that this slightly lengthy film is without its suspense pieces, narrative twists, and shrewd disclosures, not to mention injections of social commentary and moral ambiguity.
There’s a lot at work here, even if it’s presented with a generous, accessible touch.
And if the film’s somewhat elliptical ending feels more hopeful than real life would suggest, by then we’re so invested in our cast (due in no small part to the cast’s consistently good performances) that it’s a rousing way to go out .
Sometimes you really do get to choose your family.
In Korean with English subtitles
Rated: R for a language
Duration: 2 hours, 9 minutes
To play: Begins December 28, Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-12-27/review-hirokazu-kore-eda-broker-song-kang-ho ‘Broker’ review: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s tender two men and a baby