On a filthy rainy South Korea night a young mother abandons her baby, leaving it in the “baby box” – designated for just this thing – attached to a church. The next day, having changed her mind, she heads back to the church, only to find that a pair of “baby brokers” got to the box before the church authorities. They have stolen her baby and intend to sell it on the adoption black market.
Two cops saw all this. Clearly onto the brokers, they were watching from a stakeout vehicle as Moon So-young (Lee Ji-eun) left her baby and as Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) filched it. As they watch and snack on instant noodles, gummi bears and so on, these two female officers are putting together a case against Dong-soo and fellow baby broker Ha Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho). To make it watertight they need to catch the brokers in the act – taking money as the baby is handed over.
It all sounds like the setup for something very dark, and once it’s been revealed that So-young is a prostitute who has killed the baby’s gangster father it sounds like the something darker still.
Instead, writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda gives us a warm, gentle, funny, touching, emotional, fuzzy, feelgood movie in familiar Koreeda territory – the ad hoc family unit.
Moon So-young has a take-no-prisoners approach to life and at first negotiates with the brokers – who are a fairly hopeless pair – but falls in with their scheme after they tell her how much money a baby fetches on the black market. Together, all three, plus baby Woo-sung, set off on what turns into a road trip as they try to sell the baby to various childless couples, only for fate to intervene repeatedly.
Koreeda has a fascination with human relationships and a view on the way people just can’t help forming them – see human, bond with human – so there’s a definite direction that this film is pointing in. Meanwhile, back with the cops, things are heading the other way. At a certain point, the ragtag band of mother, baby and criminal middle men starts looking like a unit, especially once stray orphan kid Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo) also joins them. It’s the cops who start to look like the mercenaries. They desperately need the baby-sale to go through. Who’s the broker now?
There’s a love angle. Surely, pretty So-young and the younger of the guys, handsome Dong-soo, are going to get it on? That said, such is Koreeda’s brilliance as a storyteller that he is able to keep this thread, and all the many others, dangling while also resolving everything in a way that’s both satisfying and plausible. You may well up, but you won’t feel like you’ve been conned into it.
The acting plaudits have mostly been heaped on Song Kang-ho, who is again as great as he was in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, but there are no makeweights in this cast. Lee Ji-eun stands out, maybe, because she’s best known as a singer rather than an actor, and her character is on the biggest emotional journey, though Im Seung-soo as cheeky-monkey Hae Jin also delivers more than is on the page.
There’s nothing wrong with Bae Doona and Lee Joo-young as the detectives, though their characters – chalk and cheese cops eating and bickering – have been lifted from the big book of movie characters. They are in a sense a McGuffin, just in the story enough to give it a bit of a dramatic throughline. Koreeda clearly has misgivings about them too, and introduces another barely-there back-up throughline in the shape of the gangsters who want payback for the murder of their boss.
The DP is Hong Kyung-po, of Parasite and Snowpiercer fame, and he shoots it all bright and clear but in a muted colour palette and softly lit, emphasising that gunplay and car chases aren’t going to be what this film is all about. The gentle soundtrack of jazz-tinged piano chords or guitar arpeggios says exactly the same thing.
Will they, won’t they is the big question – will the mum really sell her baby, will she and the young baby broker get together, will Hae-Jin find someone to adopt him, will Sang-hyun get his money, will the cops get their men?
Watch this lovely, lovely film made from the most distressingly wrong ingredients and find out.
Broker – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023