June Butler delves into Hirokazu Koreeda’s tale of baby kidnappers.
Born in 1962, Japan, Hirokazu Koreeda started working in television, eventually graduating to directing feature length films. His career spans more than a dozen movies, with Broker being Koreeda’s latest offering.
Ha Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) launders and mends clothes for a living – running the family trade out of a ramshackle building surrounded by other equally rickety shops. Business is tough and a steady stream of income seems to elude Ha Sang-hyeon which is why he has come up with the utterly brilliant idea of selling babies anonymously left at a local church by unmarried mothers. Ha Sang-hyeon appears to be a bumbling kindly soul but his apparent altruism is being bolstered by what can only be termed as human trafficking, a far more lucrative (and unlawful) prospect than his present, back-breaking job of laundry work. And it brings in an immediate revenue greatly exceeding funds generated by his business.
Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) is Sang-hyeon’s partner in crime and right-hand man. He works part-time at the church and passes the babies onto Sang-hyeon for future sale.
Moon So-young (Lee Ji-eun) weaves a path through puddles and thunderous rain to leave her baby at the local church. Hesitatingly, she places the child on a blanket and flees without heeding the infant’s cries. She is being monitored by two police officers – Soo-jin (Bae Doona), a taciturn and unsmiling policewoman who has been assigned to investigate the suspected illegal child-trading activity, and a younger, slightly less jaded officer, Detective Lee (Lee Joo-young). Soo-jin exits the police car and tenderly lifts the baby to place it in the enclosed cubicle at the entrance to the church. The baby is removed by Dong-soo and video evidence of its placement in the box is deleted.
Within days, Moon So-young has a change of heart and tracks down Dong-soo and Ha Sang-hyeon. It soon becomes evident that Dong-soo and Ha Sang-hyeon (after initial indignant protests), intend selling the baby and in order to placate Moon So-young, suggest splitting the proceeds with her. The trio locate a potential buyer for the baby and set off to meet the couple. However, it appears that the prospective couple are in fact a honey-trap set up to catch Dong-soo and Ha Sang-hyeon in the act. Moon So-young jeopardises the sale and refuses to part with her child which then scuppers the police sting. Had Moon So-young relinquished her baby at this stage, the story would have ended there.
At times, Broker seems a tender tale but really, it’s moonshining as a cover for deeper, darker desires with innocents caught in the melee. It looks like Hirokazu Koreeda decided to throw everything into the wash hoping it would blend together and make sense at the end. Stories head off into the blue yonder without a logical tangent and it appears as if Koreeda is having trouble in making them gel and seem cohesive. Dong-soo and Moon So-young embark on a fleeting love story but there is zero chemistry between the pair. Dong-soo was raised in an orphanage and after he visits the same orphanage with Moon So-young and Ha Sang-hyeon, a young resident Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo) stows away aboard the rusty van. This new entrant previously demanded that Ha Sang-hyeon, Dong-soo and Moon So-young adopt him and when they failed to do so, took matters into his own hands and hid in the vehicle. By the time his presence is discovered, it is too late to return Hae-jin to the orphanage. It sheds a troubling light on the checks in place when a vulnerable child can disappear from an institution without being missed. But all that being said, Hae-jin’s insertion lends nothing to the story except perhaps a fleeting ‘awwww’ moment and it soon becomes clear as to why no one adopted him. He is irritating beyond belief. Early on I hoped that Hae-jin would be frogmarched back to where he came from but sadly, no. He stayed (and stayed), causing mayhem and havoc along the way.
The two police officers tail the group from town to town. Soo-jin seems to thrive on being perma-enraged. She has a point but still, her actions appear to be a bit one-note. Detective Lee, Soo-jin’s sidekick, does her best to appear upbeat and resolute but it’s an uphill battle with the humourless Soo-jin.
In all, Broker had lofty ambitions to expose child-trafficking but fails to live up to its original undertaking. While it starts off brilliantly, the story soon fades into uncertainty and winds up in being a drawn-out tawdry tale where no one, including those assigned to uphold the law, comes out of the ether smelling of roses. Song Kang-ho as Ha Sang-hyeon is the sole shining beacon of acting genius in what would otherwise be a less lauded film. In some ways, Kang-ho simply sutures the story together. In others, he goes further and steals every scene he appears in. From shambling fool to soaring marvellousness, Song Kang-ho hits the right note effortlessly. Without Song Kang-ho, the film wouldn’t have achieved the plaudits it did. Broker had the potential to be so good but just didn’t quite make it.
Broker is in cinemas from 24th February 2023.