A wonderfully strange twist on a road movie, “Broker” is the darker version of “Little Miss Sunshine,” not that “Little Miss Sunshine” was all sweetness and light. Written and directed by Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda (“After the Storm”), “Broker” bears some resemblance to Koreeda’s Academy Award-nominated 2018 effort “Shoplifters.” We’re still in the world of familial grifters in “Broker,” which tells the story of a couple of South Korean baby traffickers, who aren’t exactly what you’d expect.
Song Kang-ho of “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “The Host” fame plays Sang-hyeon, the notably paternal leader of the two-man trafficking team. When he isn’t selling babies to married couples who desperately want them, Sang-hyeon runs a dry cleaning and tailor business. No one sews a button better than he. His partner in crime is the younger and taller Dong-soo (Dong-won Gang, “Peninsula”). Sang-hyeon owes money that he lost gambling to local gangsters. He and Dong-soo are given a baby named Woo-sung (Ji-yung Park), who was left at the Busan Family Church on a suitably rainy night, to sell. They load the kid up in Sang-hyeon's beat-up, smoke-belching delivery van and hit the road in the picturesque coastal Busan region. Their first stop is an orphanage, where Dong-soo grew up, waiting for the mother who left him to return for him. She never did.
Also along for the ride is the baby’s mother So-young (Ji-eun Lee), a young prostitute with a dark secret. After leaving the orphanage, the group discovers that Hae-jin (Seung-soo Im), a soccer-mad elementary school-age orphan, has stowed away to travel with them. Hae-jin bonds with the others.
These five people, mostly strangers to one another, form the film’s ragtag nuclear family. On their trail are two female police officers, Soo-jin aka Sarge (Bae Doona, “The Host, “Cloud Atlas”) and Detective Lee (Lee Joo-young). The cops spend a lot of time eating such delicacies as pig trotters and under-cooked ramen in their unmarked car. The trash piles up. The questions and revelations also pile up. Why did So-young leave Woo-sung on cold stones rather than the blanket-lined “baby box” expressly created for unwanted children? Sang-hyeon insists that he and Dong-soo are “benevolent” traffickers, more in the tradition of “mister stork,” making childless couples happy. The money is also not half bad. Sarge is the Javert figure, the endlessly dogged pursuer. We know she is married to a writer. She seems perhaps more emotionally involved in this case. Many of the film’s characters are orphans, foundlings or runaways. It is our existential condition — we are all orphans of the storm.
Sarge rehearses a couple pretending to be interested in buying Woo-sung, not unlike a director. She does not like the “pretend” husband’s use of the word “truly.” At a car wash, Hae-jin mischievously opens a window, letting soap and water stream into the vehicle, an unlikely baptism for an unusual family. Sarge lies in the backseat of her car, eating gummy bears, enjoying a sugary musing. Near the end, the entire group is stuck on a Ferris wheel, their fate in the hands of the gods. Like Koreeda’s previous films, which have been compared to the work of Japanese icon Yazujiro Ozu (“Tokyo Story”), “Broker” is an exploration of a human’s natural desire to bond. In the most moving scene in the film, So-young shuts the lights and thanks all of her new friends, the baby included, for “being born.” Is it any wonder that someone announces that it is about to be “family month” in Korea?
(In Korean with English subtitles)
Rated: R (for some language)
Running time: 2:09
How to watch: Now in theaters