If international moviemaking somehow turned into a high concept Hollywood body-swap movie and Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda ended up trading lives with Michael Bay, you can just imagine Transformers IX would somehow be a subtle, gentle tale of Megatron drawing solace from a found family of Autobots. (Conversely, Michael Bay would be making movies about a Tokyo mother and daughter blowing shit up.) In films such as Like Father, Like Son and Shoplifters Kore-eda has proved a master at spinning perfectly wrought tales around the way we form connections and ties without any false notes. His latest, Broker, his first film in Korea after to travelling to France for The Truth, continues the tradition delivering a sad, wise, quietly funny take on finding bonds and identities wherever we can get them.
Broker begins with a brisk, economically sketched set-up. A young woman, So-young (Ji-eun Lee), leaves her baby, Woo-Sung, in a church operated Baby Box (think a cash point meets a serving hatch), a haven for overwhelmed mothers to leave their unwanted children, comforted by the knowledge that their offspring will find their way into the care system. Only Woo-Sung won’t. Two adoption brokers Sang-hyun (Parasite’s Song Kang-ho, giving the film a big-hearted centre) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) steal the child with plans to sell him on the baby black market for 10 million won (interestingly, the going rate for baby girls is two million less). It’s a foolproof moneymaking scheme scuppered by So-young, who discovers their subterfuge and, rather than demand her baby back, asks to be cut in on the racket. What none of the threesome know is that a pair of female detectives (Doona Bae and Lee Joo Young, sharing a delightful rapport) have had the baby box under surveillance and are just waiting to catch the brokers in the act.
At this point, Broker hits its stride as it becomes a road trip movie, the foursome barrelling around Korea in a run-down van filled with dry cleaning, looking for prospective buyers for Woo-Sung. En route, the four become five as sharp talking seven-year-old kid Hae-jin (Im Seung-so) stows-away in their van after a visit to an orphanage. In true Kore-eda style, the film morphs into a lovely study of a makeshift family living on the fringes of society. It doesn’t reach the heights of Shoplifters, but it’s hard to think of a filmmaker working at the moment who is more generous to his characters than Kore-eda, deftly sketching non-judgmental portrayals of flawed people with zero condescension and maximum humanity.
The film plays with conventional plot elements far more than the usual Kore-eda joint — there’s suspense, a fist fight of sorts (though sadly no Autobots) — and occasionally you can feel the gears of the genre mechanisms grinding (especially in So-young’s backstory). And compared with Kore-eda’s trademark English-butler-serving-Emma-Thompson restraint, it flirts with mawkishness. But there is great scene after great scene — the first attempt to sell the baby, the cops rehearsing a faux couple they hope will ensnare the brokers, a touching Ferris wheel conversation — and when the compassion is this huge, the air of melancholy this potent, it’s easy to fall for its manifold charms.