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Broker review – life-affirming road movie from a master of social cinema

Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda takes a lighter look at a familiar theme with this heart-melting story of makeshift family

One month after Steven Spielberg delivered what might be the most raw and bleak film of a storied and sometimes sentimental career with The Fablemans, Japan’s resident social agnostic has given us his schmaltziest film to date. Hirokazu Kore-eda has made a career out of films in which families, whose members are often not related to one another, struggle to connect. Society, and social systems in particular, tend to do them in.

Like Spielberg, then, Kore-eda seems to be having a think. As in the writer-director’s other films, Broker traverses contemporary social debates and probes areas of moral grey. But it’s also a heart-melting drama in which kids (even the grown-up ones) tend to lead the charge. That might sound like a dilution of Kore-eda's well-established causticity. But Broker succeeds because it also convincingly observes somewhat happier (if not quite happy) families. Who’d have thought? He’s also a much funnier filmmaker than he’s been given credit for: that comes across louder in Broker than elsewhere.

Having followed up 2018’s Palme D’Or winner Shoplifters with his first European film The Truth a year later, Kore-eda’s latest is his first production in South Korea. But not only is Broker thematically similar to Shoplifters, focused on another tenuously held unit’s odyssey through a largely intolerant world, it has another Kore-eda hallmark: an ironic title. The titular broker at first appears to be baby-trafficking launderette owner Ha Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), yet proves to be numerous other characters.

Broker follows the fallout of young mother Moon So-young (K-pop sensation Lee Ji-eun, better known as IU) leaving her baby at one of Busan’s “baby box” drop-off points next to a local church. Traffickers Ha Sang-hyeon, and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) snatch the child and begin to seek a buyer. But there’s a twist: police detectives Soo-jin (Bae Doona) and Lee (Lee Joo-young) are already staking out the pair’s black-market trade. They become interested in So-young’s story, which is more than meets the eye.

In most ways, Broker is unlike Shoplifters. Kore-eda’s liking for flexible scripts and improvised dialogue is seemingly left behind here, with Broker taking on an unusually structured style. That makes it feel less organic than the films which brought him global plaudits. The most remarkable moment in Shoplifters, for example, in which “mother” Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) cries during a police interrogation, was entirely unscripted. Broker has none of that rawness, making for a less intense ride.

Some have taken Broker’s more stilted attitude to be a fatal mistake on Kore-eda's part. Yet the central conceit of Broker – that a mother’s sale of her child pulls in half a dozen complex, slightly broken people, all with their own interest in its fate – has plenty going for it. Kore-eda's trademark style is hidden somewhat behind big names and a higher budget than he’s had before. Nevertheless, this is another life-affirming look at people’s doomed efforts to coexist within faceless systems. In that way, the director is back.

Broker is released in UK cinemas on 24 February.

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