Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has long claimed his biggest directorial influence is that of the British social realist master Ken Loach, even though the similarities between the pair prove superficial when examined beyond the surface. Both are most renowned for their humanist dramas that explore the struggles of those living on society’s margins, although their approaches are considerably different; Koreeda has little interest in making unambiguous political statements with his stories, preferring not to editoralise when it comes to depicting the harsh realities of his characters’ lives.
In his latest film Broker, his first to take place in South Korea, that impulse works to both the story’s benefit and detriment, exploring unplanned pregnancy from several different angles without judgement. Where the film succeeds the most is in how it challenges the director’s innately empathetic treatment of his characters, centering a group of human traffickers who profit from the sale of newborn babies, and allowing them the same humanity as those in his previous character studies of people suffering through poverty. As with his finest work, there are more moral complexities to this tale than meets the eye, although this time, this isn’t hidden beneath the surface, eventually leaving him no choice but to overcompensate with sentimentality to not risk missing the emotional pay-off.
The story is initially centered around a “baby box”, where new parents effectively leave their newborns so they can be taken in for adoption. In the director’s native Japan, abandoning a newborn can be punished by up to five years imprisonment, whereas in South Korea, a recent change to the adoption law has seen some areas receive upwards of a dozen newborns a month. It’s at one of these where we’re initially introduced to Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo (Song Kang-ho and Gang Dong-won respectively), who operate an illegal business stealing babies from a church’s baby box, deleting the security footage, and then proceeding to sell the baby to prospective parents for lucrative amounts. The film is initially striking due to how it manages to depict both characters without the sense of contempt you’d normally reserve for such figures, showing them handling the baby with a genuine sense of care – something which is only complicated by the fact they’re taking it solely for profit.
As much as Koreeda’s films rarely outline their political thesis, it’s easy to conclude from the opening moments that Broker is thematically invested in how we retain our core sense of humanity within a capitalist system that’s left many of us scrambling to do morally questionable things to get by. This is only furthered by the arrival of So-young (Lee Ji-eun), the young mother who left her baby but has subsequently changed her mind, charting her conflicted relationship with the pair as they head off on a road trip to find new foster parents. Meanwhile, Sang-heyon and Dong-soo’s operations are under immediate investigation, as the pair are followed across the country by two detectives who aim to use So-young to initiate a sale, giving them the concrete evidence they need to arrest the pair behind the scheme.
As outlined by the director himself, the title Broker refers to all the central players in the drama at one point or another, with the title taking on an increasingly cynical meaning as it shifts its focus towards law enforcement taking advantage of a vulnerable young woman. Koreeda is too smart of a filmmaker to ever descend into making one of his characters an uncomplicated villain, however; his brand of humanism is more complex than it’s usually given credit for, which is partially why some western critics have claimed there’s an uneasy undercurrent of pro-life sentiment within this story. But that specific moment, where one of the detectives appears sympathetic towards that ideology, feels inherently tied to the writer/director’s approach to character here. Nobody’s flaws are hidden, but he wants you to feel empathetic towards them regardless.
Admittedly, this is a challenge he doesn’t fully succeed in, relying heavily on an overbearing score and moments of soap opera to generate emotional catharsis. He understands that the only villain within the film is a system that has led desperate people to these places, and this is largely why the character drama never becomes as powerful as it should; his refusal to editorialise or make an overt statement means some are tougher to find the humanity in than others, something laid bare by the increasing reliance on moments of unearned melodrama as we proceed through the third act.
The director has said that Broker is a companion piece to his previous film, Shoplifters, due to it being about a nuclear family of social outcasts. It’s in that comparison where Broker ultimately falls short; whereas the structure of that previous effort was designed to hide the inner demons of its central characters until later in the drama, here they are exposed throughout – and it’s harder to make a work of heart-warming humanism when the dark secrets of the characters are used as the starting point.
Written by Alistair Ryder
*UK Release Date: 24 February 2023.