Hirokazu Kore-eda is on the move. The Japanese writer-director has leveraged the Palme d'Or-winning success of 2018's Shoplifters into a series of starry awaydays, heading first to Europe for 2019's only fitfully persuasive The Truth, and now to Korea for the baby-trafficking drama Broker. (The most characteristic of his recent works, the placid-to-a-fault manga series The Makanai: Cooking for the Maiko House, is currently streaming on Netflix.) This overseas diversion has apparently been born out of a desire to work with the kind of esteemed actors who approach name directors at closing-night ceremonies; in Broker's case, Parasite's Song Kang-ho, as a crumpled laundry manager whose profitable side hustle involves selling abandoned babies to couples keen to circumvent a byzantine adoption process, and Wachowski fave Doona Bae as the detective on his tail. Around these two, however, Kore-eda sketches a network of disparate souls entangled in this scenario: the young mother of one abandoned child, a sex worker (Ji-eun Lee) who had second thoughts before she heard the price a baby can command on the black market; a pair of gangsters shaking down Song's character for protection money; and the kids and staff of an orphanage where our anti-hero's sidekick/apprentice Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) was raised. A second half Magnolia nod only confirmed my suspicions Kore-eda had pilfered that film's kaleidoscopic structure; the abiding concern is that it won't be frogs falling from the sky this time round, rather newborns fumbled by clumsy and bedraggled storks.
The kids-for-cash background is unarguably tough, bordering on grim. Yet Kore-eda softens it by keeping his characters as close as he does. Broker is founded on paralleled nurturing relationships (between Song's trafficker and Gang's underling, and between Bae's cop and junior partner Lee Joo-young), and having the detectives trail the traffickers every step of the way suggests nothing too untoward will happen without immediate intervention. Similarly, it's a canny move on Kore-eda's part to have the babymother roll with the traffickers, allowing for at least the possibility that she might change her mind. The movie reportedly sprang from the image of a baby box: a real-life innovation in Korea, allowing unwanted offspring to be safely (and anonymously) deposited with churches, much as one used to deposit video rental tapes in the Blockbuster dropbox. The plot Kore-eda works up from this observation is its own baby box, in that it's been gently warmed and attentively cushioned, offering passing sanctuary for characters and onlookers alike. There are no real sharp edges; the film means to be, and largely is, a balm for a world where children are now routinely separated from their parents at international borders and thereafter lost in the system. Broker proceeds from two tenets. One: the simple fact that none of these characters gets far enough away for any bonds or ties to be decisively severed. Two: the gentle irony that most of them end up playing parent or guardian, whether they want to or not - even before the midfilm revelation that one of those orphans has stowed away in the back of the van the traffickers are using to shop around the swaddled infant.
Childproofing this kind of plot inevitably muffles certain elements. Though Broker counts as the first Kore-eda in recent memory to generate a bodycount - presumably you're not allowed to film in Korea without someone hitting the floor - as a crime story, it's more caper than cutthroat. Everyone on screen plainly wants the best for baby, even if it's just the best price; the characters are rogues, but they're not monsters. Likewise, there's not much urgency as this parade winds its way around the elegantly curved Korean coastline. We could be watching a rolling eBay auction, one in which the item of sale fluctuates in value, and the sellers develop cold feet; there is a net closing in, but it's a safety net, unfurled to reassure us that nothing bad can follow from these negotiations. Still, Kore-eda's handling is far more assured than it ever was in the erratic, often backfiring The Truth. For one thing, he's newly reattuned both to individual performances (casting, say, renowned screen eccentric Bae against type as a straight arrow) and to their place within the ensemble; he notes how even the most ragged and standoffish figures in this picture mesh with those around them. Kore-eda has spent a quarter-century shuffling ever more familiar themes, and there are echoes here not just of Shoplifters, but of 2011's I Wish and 2013's Like Father, Like Son before it. I wonder whether, as with the Dardennes, we've reached a point where the critical establishment has started to take that skilful reshuffling for granted. Wherever he ends up, he's not a risktaker like Paul Thomas Anderson, which is why that Magnolia riff plays as charmingly low-key. (I wish, indeed.) But he remains, on his best days, a safe pair of hands. In an uncertain theatrical landscape, that's what audiences are responding to, and that's why Broker, which is nothing if not carefully brokered itself, has become one of the biggest foreign-language hits of the year.
Broker is now playing in selected cinemas.