I won’t lie – I get a frisson of excitement when a new Hirokazu Koreeda film is released. Works like ‘Our Little Sister’, ‘After the Storm’ and ‘Shoplifters’ have been cinematic treats, providing refreshment for the soul and intellect alike. Koreeda has that ability to bring out simple humanity in unlikely situations and his themes are universal, meaning that, no matter where in the world one watches his work, there can be a flicker of recognition. ‘Broker’ gives us a triple threat, with Koreeda in the director’s chair and Korean legends Song Kang-Ho and Bae Doo-Na in two leading roles.
A baby is left outside of a Korean church ‘Baby Box’, a space where unwanted babies are left by troubled mothers who cannot look after them. The mother, So-young, leaves nothing behind other than a note that she will return. Volunteering in the church is Dong-Soo who, with his partner Sang-hyun, offer an unofficial adoption system; for a price, they will provide rich Korean couples with the babies that are left there. So-young, unlike many who leave their babies behind, investigates what has happened to her son and stumbles upon the baby brokers, who are in the middle of organising a deal for him. So-young decides to travel with the pair on their journey across Korea to meet potential clients and is keen to take a chunk of the fee to free herself from the life she leads. Yet what might seem to be a dark trade turns out to be an offer of redemption for her, Dong-soo and Sang-hyun. Meanwhile, the brokers are being trailed by a pair of detectives who want to catch them in the act.
Writing the synopsis – reading the synopsis – is difficult; the idea of baby brokers being the protagonists of a story, let alone the ones we get to know, is a strange one, but fits in with Koreeda’s style of creating strange family units. And that is what ‘Broker’ becomes, a delightful film about redemption and family, a look at how there is hope for those from even the most troubled situations. The family unit – which soon includes a stowaway boy from the orphanage Dong-soo himself grew up in – go on a road trip to complete what might seem like quite ugly business, but is given a sense of importance by the characters. While not condoning the activity, Koreeda nudges these damaged individuals together and lets them develop a relationship with his ever-patient direction. The result is uplifting and unlike anything you’ll get from Western cinema.
‘Broker’ reminded me of the underrated Junichi Mori film ‘Laundry’ which also looks at bruised reeds joining forces to form an unlikely unit. There’s something powerful about seeing the downtrodden given a platform too; while Japanese cinema has often played with the theme, it does seem far away from Korean cinema’s usual gloss. That said, although it has Koreeda’s deft stamp on it, the superb cast of familiar Korean faces gives the director a fresh ensemble to work with. Song Kang-Ho is typically excellent – I’d happily watch him stacking shelves at Lidl – while Bae Doo-Na, who has less screen time, is good as the stoic detective who shows her humanity near the end. My wife is Bae Doo-Na crazy so this was a fine way to introduce her to Koreeda’s work. The standout, however, is Gang Dong-Won as Dong-soo, a character who appears a bit insouciant at the beginning but quickly develops warmth as we learn about his motivation. The whole cast plays off each other so well that it’s almost as if Koreeda has formed them into a little Korean ensemble to compete with his usual Japanese one.
Not all elements gel perfectly in ‘Broker’; the sub-plot about the gangster and the father of So-young’s baby appears shoe-horned in as almost an afterthought. Nevertheless, once again I finished watching a Hirokazu Koreeda film with a feeling of triumph and optimism. That might sound like faint praise as ‘serious’ cinema for beard-stroking intellectuals should be heavy, grim and show characters that are often hard to empathise with. Yet within this ‘nice’ film is a work of excellence by a director and writer who makes the experience of cinema a joyful one again. It’s often said that he is heir to Ozu, but I can also see the Kurosawa element shining through as he matures; he gives a quiet dignity to the voiceless the same way the Japanese master often did. ‘Broker’ is deceptively gentle in the same way as the tide is – constant, soothing and yet with a power to erode even the hardest granite with its motion.