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‘Broker’ Review: It Takes a Village to Sell a Child

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On a rainy night within the South Korean city of Busan, a young woman leaves her infant son outside a church, near — but not inside — the “baby box” that’s there to gather abandoned children. Two law enforcement officials have staked out the church, and certainly one of them places the kid within the box, where he’s found by traffickers who plan to sell him on the illegal adoption market.

This sad, ugly situation, soaked in greed and desperation, is the premise of “Broker,” a sweet and charming film by the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda. Kore-Eda, who won the highest prize at Cannes in 2018 for “Shoplifters,” brings a delicate humanity and a warm playfulness to stories that may otherwise be unbearably grim. His characters, who often live on the margins of recent society, find tenderness and camaraderie in harsh circumstances. Without undue optimism or overt sentimentality, he discovers a measure of hope amid the cruelty and misfortune.

The child, whose name is Woo-sung, lands within the temporary custody of Sang-hyeon (Song Kang Ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won). They aren’t really bad guys, let alone criminal masterminds. Dong-soo, who grew up in an orphanage, works part-time within the church. Sang-hyeon, who has frolicked in jail and owes money to loan sharks, operates a struggling laundry business. When Woo-sung’s mother, So-young (Lee Ji-eun), tracks them down with second thoughts, they insist on their good intentions. “Consider us as Cupids” uniting children with loving parents, Sang-hyeon says, or possibly “twin storks” delivering longed-for bundles of joy. For a fee, in fact, but they’re willing to chop So-young in on the motion.

“Broker,” Kore-Eda’s first film shot outside of Japan, is partly a road movie, winding its way through the cities and towns of South Korea because the baby-sellers and their latest partner search for suitable parents for Woo-sung. They’re pursued by those law enforcement officials — played with salty deadpan by Bae Doona and Lee Joo-young — who’re like the celebs of their very own buddy-cop picture, easing the tedium of long hours of their unmarked automobile with weary banter and nonstop snacking.

Along the way in which — as if so as to add a layer of sitcom to the genre sandwich — the brokers absorb Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo), a soccer-mad 8-year-old boy from Dong-soo’s orphanage who stows away of their battered minivan. There’s also a murder, and an underworld conspiracy gathering in its wake. At times it seems as if a complete season of K-drama is perhaps coiled into slightly greater than two hours.

But someway, “Broker” doesn’t feel overplotted, overly cute or excessively melodramatic. Kore-Eda has an emotionally direct style, a way of fusing naturalism and fable that recalls the neorealist magic of Vittorio De Sica. His characters are silly, suffering, dignified creatures, on whom the audience’s sympathy descends like grace.

It helps that the superb forged is anchored by Song, the stalwart Everyman perhaps best generally known as a fixture of the Bong Joon Ho cinematic universe. His character is each the comic spark in “Broker” — sporting a haphazardly adjusted baby carrier on his chest and launching into occasional jeremiads in regards to the sorry state of the laundry industry — and the source of its dramatic credibility. Part scapegoat, part hero, he’s at the middle of the story whilst he can be the loneliest person in it.

And it’s the specter of loneliness, as much as anything, that haunts this movie. Woo-sung, cherubically untroubled, is a logo of the love, connection and achievement that cash can’t buy and that’s subsequently commodified by a society determined to generate profits the measure of every part. Kore-Eda, remarkably, doesn’t counterfeit a joyful ending, but he also refuses despair. He’s an honest broker of heartbreak.

Broker
Rated R. In Korean, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes. In theaters.

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