If there’s one thing Korean dramas do best it’s leave you hanging with questions you want answered about the film you just watched. That’s perhaps why they’re so hard to turn away from. Broker, the latest film by renowned award-winning Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, is no different.
As I said before in my review of the BAFTA nominated romantic crime drama Decision to Leave, I’ve never really watched Korean films or shows so my knowledge of them and their styles reviews Broker from an outside view. The film revolves around a young new mother who abandons her months old son by a “baby box” rather than in it. The baby, named Woo-sung is then stolen by two men who intend to sell him, though they claim to be rescuing him from growing up in an orphanage. When the mother So-young tries to come back for him she soon agrees to the men’s plan, seemingly for a cut of the money.
However, the reason she abandoned Woo-sung is not without mystery and drama and the two detectives are soon on the tail of her and the two brokers Sang-hyun and Dong-soo. There’s also subplots involving the backstories of the two brokers, a potential love blossoming between Dong-soo and So-young, a young orphan boy Hae-jin who desperately wants to be adopted, the lives of the two detectives – particularly that of the lead Soo-jin, the sad stories of the several couples who are interested in buying Woo-sung, gangsters, and the wife of a man murdered who is allegedly Woo-sung’s father.
At the heart of the story and it’s slightly confusing and drip fed subplots and backstories though is a metaphorical journey of parenthood and family. What it means to be a mother or father – the pressures, the so-called “natural instinct”, the absence of either one or both of them, and what constitutes family even when you’re not related by blood? And where a traditional story would have clearly defined protagonists and antagonists for the audience to follow, Broker doesn’t. Do you pity, root or despise Soo-young for her decisions, the reasons behind them and her apparently disconnected emotion from Woo-sung? Do you understand the brokers’ reason for their actions of selling babies, however criminal they may be as you get to know them throughout? Do you hope the detectives trying to bring all three main characters to justice succeed or do you feel they’re just as heartless and cunning for how they go about it and treat So-young?
Ultimately, Broker is a film that challenges perceptions of good versus bad intentions and right and wrong, even if half of the subplots and minor characters are either fleeting or incomplete. For example, we only hear one side of Soo-jin’s emotional phone conversation with presumably her husband and have no idea what is really going on there despite very subtle, “blink and you’ll miss it” hints every so and often. And the murdered man’s wife makes only two very brief appearances in a connected subplot that adds little to the film’s finale as it is barely wrapped up.
As I learnt from Decision to Leave, while not much seems to happen compared to say, British dramas, a lot does almost happen, in that you think you know what’s coming but doesn’t (like the detectives catching them by baiting into a sale) or you think is going to be the end but isn’t (I won’t give an example away). The twists and turns throughout are both gently surprising rather than overly shocking and unsatisfying in that what happens may not be what you’d expect or want to happen yet you know the outcomes satisfy the needs and wants of the well thought out but still very enigmatic characters. Or at least most of them.
And if you manage to watch a screening of Broker that features a recorded Q&A with director Hirokazu Kore-eda, it’s well worth staying behind for the extra 20 minutes to hear more of the film’s background as he chats with film critic Ella Kemp. However, since it’s a South Korean film I would have liked a critic of South Korean, Japanese or ESEA descent to have interviewed him rather than a White girl because she’s well known in the field… Perhaps someone from MilkTea films, which helps showcase the best of East & Southeast Asian cinema in the UK?