The father who is not a father. The daughter who is not a daughter. The son who is not a son.
For decades, Japanese filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu (Shoplifters, Our Little Sister) has made movies about families. Yet lately, he has been fixated on people who aren’t related by blood, but inhabit familial roles as part of a con that becomes a truth.
That is the story of Broker, which unfolds in South Korea’s illegal adoption industry but is hardly the ruthless crime saga you might expect, given that milieu. Like all of Kore-eda’s films, it is tender, even wholesome—remarkable for a movie about trying to exchange a child for cash.
The child in question is Woo-sung, son of So-young (played by Lee Ji-eun, the actress, singer-songwriter and record producer also known as IU). Desperate to protect her baby from the inner circle of his father, a recently deceased gangster, So-young leaves Woo-sung at a church next to a “baby box” for abandoned children (the film’s screenplay, written by Kore-eda, was inspired by a real-life baby drop box at a Seoul church).
So-young later learns that her son was found by Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho, the trapped father in Parasite) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), brokers who sell children to parents eager to avoid the bureaucracy of an official adoption. Given the profitable nature of the scheme—one baby can fetch the equivalent of more than $7,970—So-young wants in.
So begins one of the more unusual road trips in movie history. Packed into a green van so battered that the trunk barely closes, So-young, Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo search the nation for a couple willing to pay for Woo-sung. It’s like Little Miss Sunshine, if Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette wanted to sell Abigail Breslin instead of ferrying her to a beauty pageant.
Or is it? With each scene, the journey seems less and less like a mercenary mission. For Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo, it turns out, brokering is both a business and a calling. Driven by the knowledge that Dong-soo’s own mother abandoned him at the gates of an orphanage, they’re compelled to unite unwanted children with loving parents, even if it means rejecting profitable offers.
As for So-young, our compassion for her rises with each drop of detail about the traumas that led to her leaving Woo-sung by the baby box. She surprises everyone, including the austere police officer (Bae Doona, Cloud Atlas) who confronts her on a neon-bathed rooftop at night, eager to believe she’s a monstrous mother.
Broker, in other words, is a generous portrait of people who other movies might demonize or dismiss. Kore-eda shows us love as a currency and love as a selfless act, trusting that the actors will thrive in the space between.
That trust is rewarded in every scene, especially when Dong-soo confesses his love for So-young on a Ferris wheel—and, in an oddly moving gesture, places his hand in front of her face. So clearly do the characters understand their shared vulnerabilities and yearnings that it would be superfluous for them to look into each other’s eyes.
Just as Dong-soo and So-young see but don’t see each other, they and Sang-hyeon become a family spiritually, not literally. That’s where the ironies end in Broker. As always, Kore-eda remains religiously devoted to sincerity, always preferring to gaze rather than wink, to be real rather than clever.
If there’s a moment in the movie that perfectly evokes his sincerity, it’s when So-young lies on a bed in a dark hotel room, telling each of the people she loves most, “Thank you for being born,” and listening as those words are repeated gently back to her.
Soon, they will all be gone from that room. The moment will pass, the words will fade, and Sang-hyeon, Dong-soo and So-young will face a world that can’t comprehend their strange and beautiful bond. Yet a lingering shot of a black-and-white photo suggests that they won’t forget the days they shared. Neither will you.
SEE IT: Broker, rated R, opens Friday, Jan. 13, at Living Room Theaters. 341 SW 10th Ave., pdx.livingroomtheaters.com/nowplaying. $7.50-$13.75.