In Broker, Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda offers a captivatingly strange twist on the road movie genre. It’s like a darker version of Little Miss Sunshine (although that wasn’t strictly a sentimental affair either). Like Kore-eda’s Academy Award -nominated Shoplifters, Broker focuses on a group of familial con artists. But this time, it’s a pair of South Korean baby traffickers at the centre of the story, led by the notably paternal Sang-hyun, played by Song Kang-ho of Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Parasite fame.
Sang-hyun and his partner in crime, the younger and taller Dong-soo, are given a baby to sell after Sang-hyun loses money gambling to local gangsters. They load the kid up in Sang-hyun’s smoke-belching delivery van and hit the road in the picturesque coastal Busan region. Along for the ride are the baby’s mother, So-yung, a young prostitute with a dark secret, and wee Hae-jin, a football-mad orphan with dreams of becoming the next Son Heung-min who stows away to travel with them.
As these five strangers form a ragtag nuclear family, two female police officers pursue them. Soo-jim, aka Sarge, and Detective Lee spend a lot of time eating and pursuing the traffickers while the group’s questions and revelations pile up. Why did So-yung leave her baby on cold stones? Are Sang-hyun and Dong-soo truly ‘benevolent’ traffickers?
Like Kore-eda’s previous work, Broker explores the human desire to bond. In one of the most moving scenes, So-yung shuts the lights and thanks all of her new friends, including the baby, for “being born.” There are plenty of similarly touching moments, not least one where the entourage is in the car passing through a car wash when the adorable Hae-jin opens the windows, soaking them all. Having said that, there are a few too many of these tender points in the film’s duration, and at times Broker threatens to fall into repetition.
With its themes of familial grifting and the search for belonging, Broker is a compelling addition to Kore-eda’s filmography. While it may feel empty and weightless at times, its cast manages to sell the story and create a sense of investment in the characters, despite the formulaic nature of their journey. The film’s saving grace is undoubtedly Hong Kyung-pyo’s stunning cinematography, which uses stark lighting and brash colours to create some of the most visually arresting images of the year. The night scenes, in particular, are a triumph, with their remarkably controlled use of neon to paint a portrait of Korea’s cities as places of promise and loss.
Broker isn’t a cinematic wonder, per se, but I’m grateful this sharp visual style was able to elevate the film and give vitality to its grubby scenario. Ultimately, Broker may not be groundbreaking, but it is a film worth seeking out for its captivating visuals and engaging performances.
Broker is in cinemas on 24th February