On a rainy night in the South Korean city of Busan, a young woman leaves her infant son outside a church, near – but not inside – the ‘baby box’ which is there to collect abandoned children . Two policemen have staked out the church, and one of them places the child in the box, where he is found by traffickers planning to sell him on the illegal adoption market.
This sad and ugly situation, steeped in greed and despair, is the premise of “Broker,” a sweet and charming film from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda. Kore-Eda, who won top prize at Cannes in 2018 for “Shoplifters,” brings a gentle humanity and warm playfulness to stories that might otherwise be unbearably dark. His characters, who often live on the fringes of modern society, find tenderness and camaraderie in difficult circumstances. Without exaggerated optimism or overt sentimentality, he discovers a dose of hope in the midst of cruelty and misfortune.
The baby, whose name is Woo-sung, lands in the temporary care of Sang-hyeon (Song Kang Ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won). They’re not really bad guys, let alone criminal masterminds. Dong-soo, who grew up in an orphanage, works part-time in the church. Sang-hyeon, who has spent time in prison and owes money to loan sharks, runs a struggling laundry business. When Woo-sung’s mother, So-young (Lee Ji-eun), hounds them with doubts, they insist on their good intentions. “Think of us as Cupids” uniting children with loving parents, Sang-hyeon says, or perhaps “twin storks” delivering long-awaited bundles of joy. For a fee, of course, but they’re willing to get So-young in on the action.
“Broker,” Kore-Eda’s first film shot outside of Japan, is part road movie, winding through towns and villages across South Korea as baby sellers and their new partner search for suitable parents to Woo-sung. They’re chased by these cops — played with salty deadpans by Bae Doona and Lee Joo-young — who are like the stars of their own buddy-cop pic, relieving the boredom of long hours in their unmarked car with weary banter and non-stop snacks.
Along the way – as if to add a sitcom layer to the sandwich genre – the brokers welcome Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo), a football-mad 8-year-old boy from Dong-soo’s orphanage who is hiding in their dented van. There’s also murder and an underworld conspiracy gathering in its wake. Sometimes it seems like an entire season of K-drama could be wrapped up in just over two hours.
But somehow, “Broker” doesn’t feel overloaded, overly cute, or overly melodramatic. Kore-Eda has an emotionally direct style, a way of merging naturalism and fable that recalls the neorealist magic of Vittorio De Sica. His characters are stupid, suffering, dignified creatures, on whom the sympathy of the audience descends like grace.
It helps that the superb cast is anchored by Song, the stalwart Everyman perhaps best known as a fixture in Bong Joon Ho’s cinematic universe. His character is both the comedic spark of “Broker” – sporting a baby carrier fitted haphazardly to his chest and occasionally launching into whining about the sorry state of the laundry industry — and the source of his dramatic credibility. Part scapegoat, part hero, he is at the center of the story even if he is also its loneliest person.
And it is the specter of loneliness, more than anything, that haunts this film. Woo-sung, untroubled cherub, is a symbol of love, connection and fulfillment that money cannot buy and is therefore commodified by a society bent on making money the measure of everything. Kore-Eda, remarkably, doesn’t counterfeit a happy ending, but he also refuses despair. He’s an honest heartache broker.
Rated R. In Korean, with subtitles. Duration: 2 hours 9 minutes. In theaters.