One of the best films from MIFF 2022 has finally arrived in theatres, Broker (2022) is a deeply complicated but always empathetic drama from a true modern master. Hirokazu Koreeda’s films have a certain sticky texture, maturing in your mind long after the credits roll. His films will always affect you emotionally, but their true power is the depths he is able to mine from a collection of characters.
Born out of a desire to work with legendary Korean actor Song Kang-ho, working with a large swathe of the Parasite (2019) production crew, Koreeda has crafted another thorny but deeply humanist portrait of an unlikely family, thrown together through unusual circumstances. Broker follows a pair of church volunteers Ha Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), who sell unwanted babies that are left in the church’s baby box on the adoption black market. When a young mother Moon So-young (pop star IU), returns for her baby the next day, she catches wind of their schemes and forces the brokers to take her on their journey out of town to sell her baby to the right family.
Even for one of the greatest humanist filmmakers to ever live, this is an extremely difficult story to operate as an empathy machine for an audience, making it all the more moving when it does break you open. Most of the auteur’s films start with a sweeter taste, which then patiently develops into a more acidic and complex series of emotions and flavours. In Broker, however, Koreeda begins with his darkest and most complicated place to date. The film builds and develops on top of this shaky foundation, unmasking compassion and empathy in unexpected places that will leave you in pieces.
Where The Truth (2019) faltered in its execution of performance (French and Japanese styles are worlds apart), Broker is one of the best ensembles put to film in years. From Song Kang-ho’s heart of gold humanity in face of difficult circumstance to the detectives Lee (Lee Jou-young) and Su-jin (the always terrific Bae Donna) that are tasked with taking down the operation, the entire cast is pitched perfectly to Koreeda’s empathetic underpinnings that make his work so affecting. But it is IU (real name Ji-eun Lee), who really stands out and is transcendent in the role, vaulting her immediately into the top tier of pop star performances.
Broker operates closer in style to The Truth, the filmmaker’s big swing after winning the Palme d’Or for the masterful Shoplifters (2018), which was filmed away from his home nation of Japan and in a foreign language. Both Broker and The Truth has less of the documentary style of pacing and mise en scene that made him legendary in Japanese cinema, showcasing his adaptability not just in style, but in his ability to work with a cast and crew that speak different languages.
Broker, leaning into the more Korean style of cinema, is more forceful and plot-driven in its storytelling than Koreeda’s other films, that often stem from his documentary background. The film is quite astonishing and deeply felt, with perhaps the only false note being its loud, heavy-handed moments. These moments are further leaned on by quite an obtrusive and manipulative score by Jung Jae-il, especially by Koreeda standards, who usually allows emotions to develop more naturally in his films.
In most Koreeda films, a single location is used that is full of so much personality and attention that it feels like a whole world. In Broker, a road trip movie for the most part, that single location becomes the two central vehicles: Ha Sang-hyun’s laundry van with its broken back door but homely interior, and Su-jin and Lee’s detective sedan where they spend most of the film.
Themes of care in different forms permeate the film, with the notable motifs of rain and shirt buttons coursing through its veins. By weaving themes of care and compassion between Ha Sang-hyun and detective Su-jin through their clothing, Koreeda complicates his seemingly straightforward detective story through his characters’ shared connections. In these small moments, Koreeda excels and deepens his character portraits which have made him a modern master.
Perhaps the most emotionally overwhelmed you will feel in a theatre this year occurs in a hotel room with Moon So-young and the ragtag crew, with all the lights off, thanking them for being born. She is unable to say it directly to her child who she may never see again, so she says it individually to the whole group. This is a group who have felt discarded and left behind in their own lives, so to have a young mother saying this to them with the same care as she tells her own son, is profound. This is one of the most emotionally resonant scenes Koreeda has put to film, which is saying something given his extraordinary filmography.
Fellow filmmaker Kogonada once described Koreeda’s films as tasting similarly to the legendary director Yasujirō Ozu’s work due to its aftertaste. “When we leave his films we experience a similar aftertaste, which is to say, a deeper sense of life. And it turns out that the every day is a lot like tofu (which may explain why Ozu referred to himself as a tofu maker). It may seem bland in comparison to the spectacle of other dishes and desserts being offered, but if we happen to stumble upon a master chef capable of bringing out its subtle flavours, it will change the way we experience tofu forever.” In this case, Broker is perhaps Koreeda’s most complex dish yet, one that will stay with you forever.
Broker is in select theatres now.