A charming dysfunctional-family dramedy with an impressive balancing act of tone and genre.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This article predates the Odd Trilogies website.
It was originally published on Film Yap.

Sometimes a film’s biggest detraction is simply that it doesn’t give you more of all the great stuff in it. Such is a the case with Broker — a film I very much enjoyed, but loved spending time with these characters so much that I walked away wishing the movie had let me know them better.

The latest film from Shoplifters director Hirokazu Kore-eda, Broker weaves another charming tale about an unconventional family unit doing sketchy shit but being lovable all the while.

Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) has a day job running a launderette. It must not pay the bills though, because he also steals abandoned babies from the church he volunteers at, shopping them around for hopeful parents on the black market. Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) helps him, seemingly trying to be the moral compass in a partnership of, at best, extremely dubious work.

One night, someone leaves their child, with a note naming him Woo-sung, in the baby box while Sang-hyun and Dong-soo are monitoring it, and they take him. But when the young mother, So-young (IU), has second thoughts and returns for her baby, she discovers the pair’s secret operation and demands to go along with them to find a buyer she approves of.

Unbeknownst to them, two police detectives, Soon-jin and Lee (Bae Doona and Lee Joo-young), have been watching them from the moment So-young left her baby at the church. They’ve been monitoring Sang-hyun and Dong-soo’s illegal activity and hope to catch them in the act of selling.

Throughout the film, Kore-eda alternates between the trio of traffickers and the detective duo, revealing wrinkle after complicating wrinkle that shows us more about why each player is really here. It’s an interesting blend of family drama, road comedy, and cops-n-robbers pursuit, with a pinch of organized crime thriller.

This balance gives Broker some of its best qualities: tone and atmosphere. The film deals with serious issues—guilt, parenthood and being worthy of it, the ethics of Sang-hyun and Dong-soo’s practices—all while feeling relatively upbeat and jovial.

It’s all possible because of Kore-eda’s colorful characters and the talent of the actors portraying them. Sang-hyun is a bit of a social shyster, prodding at people and cracking jokes as a way of tip-toeing around his behavior and motivations, but Song’s goofy physicality gives the a character a disarming underdog quality. Likewise, the earnestness in Gang’s face makes Dong-soo’s attempts at justifying the trafficking of children feel genuine, even rootable. And IU deftly, gradually sheds So-young’s icy shell to reveal a warmer center throughout the film.

The group is given another huge boon to their likability in the form of Lim Seung-soo as Hae-jin, an orphan boy from Dong-soo’s nursery who stows away in their van — a mighty contender for cutest on-screen kid of 2022.

This brings me to the “I wanted more,” of it all. These characters are a joy to spend time with. Even the detectives, buzzkills to the fun illegal adventure as they are, feel empathetic and introspective. But while the dialogue is cute and the performances adorable, the film is extremely back-heavy with character information and emotional beats. Too often, it felt as though Broker was holding out on me, keeping me from knowing them as I really wanted to. And when the credits roll, it was kind of like, “That’s it? That’s all I get from these people?”

We learn of Sang-hyun’s family issues way too late in the game, which feels almost like an after-thought to give him a more resolutely empathetic angle. Likewise, we’re still unearthing fundamental aspects of So-young’s story right into the climax. And Dong-soo becomes a device to say the right thing or make the good-guy choice, out of the blue, whenever necessary.

I loved and was swept up in many of this film’s emotional swells, but I had to reason with myself—do I love this scene because it’s a well-earned and built-toward realization of these characters? Or is it just a pleasantly-crafted moment that would be poignant no matter the context? Either way, Kore-eda’s keen eye for eliciting empathy and resonance is impressive. But sometimes I felt moved by a scene simply because of the tonal design of the scene itself, rather than because I had a deep connection to the players therein.

Regardless, Kore-eda’s penchant for unconventional, dysfunctional, lovably laughable family groups carries this one through. Though its later moments of melodrama feel a bit unearned at times, they still hit. Though I wish I could have spent more time (or more quality time) with these characters, I loved what I got.

I think there’s a phenomenal movie in here somewhere, and my desire to feel closer to the characters could be remedied by future rewatches, potentially growing my fondness for the film overall. But, for now anyway, Broker is good. Witty, cute, dark, and a bit saccharine all in one; a mish-mash of emotions and characters worth spending time with.

 | Website

Wishes he could forego sleep to watch more movies. Besides co-hosting Odd Trilogies and writing reviews, Andy builds Gundam models, loves on his three cats, and spends way too much time managing his Plex server. You can follow his movie-watching habits on Letterboxd.

Latest Reviews