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Koreeda’s ‘Broker’: humans in search of humanity

Dan Webster

Above:  Dong-won Gang, Song Kang-ho and Ji-eun Lee star in "Broker." (Photo/Neon)

Movie review: "Broker," written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, starring Song Kang-ho, Ji-eun Lee, Dong-won Gang, Bae Doona. Playing in theaters.

When choosing between movies and the books those movies are based on, most readers tend to prefer what sits on the printed page as opposed to what flashes in images across screens, either big or small.

As more than one critic has alleged, movies are movies and book are books and seldom, if ever, do the two meet – at least in a way that serves either format effectively.

The qualifier “seldom” in that statement is pertinent because the sentiment as a whole applies in particular to the movies of Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda. It’s certainly true of his latest film, titled simply “Broker.”

Koreeda has been making movies since the early 1990s, and his resumé includes such efforts as “After Life,” “Nobody Knows” and “Shoplifters,” that latter one a 2019 Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee. His films tend to explore the lives of people existing on the margins of society, though he avoids the implicit temptation of making his characters seem either as victims or as heroes.

They are, for the most part, just regular people. Koreeda is determined to see his characters as authentic, caught up in their often-complex personal situations in ways that cause them to act, on more than one occasion, in a manner that is as believable as it often is desperate.

Case in point, “Broker” is set in South Korea and focuses on a woman who abandons her baby, two men who seek to place the baby with suitable parents – albeit for a price – and two detectives who are on the trail of the men, intent on breaking up what is, in a technical sense, illegal activity.

Of course, there’s a difference between something that goes against the law and something that is intrinsically immoral. And this distinction is something that, at one time or another, all the characters in “Broker” debate, beginning with the mother, named So-young (who is played by Ji-eun Lee).

So-young leaves her baby at a so-called “baby box” – a receptacle at, in this case a church, where people can anonymously abandon their babies in the hopes that someone else can provide for them. So-young, we eventually discover, has reasons for wanting to give away her baby – yet Koreeda underscores her ambivalence by having her leave the baby near the box but not in it.

Wanting to entrap the men they suspect of being baby brokers, one of the detectives, speaking of immorality, does place the baby in the box. When So-young, having second thoughts, returns to retrieve her child, the men – not wanting her to call the police – enlist her help. They all, for their own reasons, need money, and soon the trio hits the road, contacting one couple after the next to see if they would make suitable parents … along with being able to come up with an acceptable price. Meanwhile, the two detectives follow along, waiting for the right moment to catch the trio in the act.

Koreeda documents all this as a novelist would, taking us on the road from the port city of Busan to Seoul with various stops in between. Along the way he takes time to unhurriedly flesh out the story of each individual character: So-young and her checkered past; the laundry owner played by Song Kang-ho who owes gambling debts; his friend, played by Dong-won Gang, whose own mother abandoned him decades before; the senior detective, played by Bae Doona, who has her own issues concerning marriage and parenting.

And along with these narrative asides, the very kinds of asides that a more narrative-conscious American film likely would cut, Koreeda fills the screen with rich, seemingly pointless visuals, such as the senior detective, carrying on a conversation while lazily tracing a flower petal stuck to her car window.

Nothing that Koreeda puts on the screen, though, is pointless. It all amounts to an exploration of what drives us as humans, seeking to salve our inner wounds while, even when it goes against our own selfish ends, striving first to figure out and then how to, in the words of Spike Lee, do the right thing.

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