Despite being completely snubbed at the 43rd Blue Dragon Film Awards, South Korea’s more popular film award ceremony, the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker stood an excellent chance to snag a few categories at the 58th Grand Bell Awards—roughly the Korean equivalent to the Academy Awards. And it should have! It’s an excellent movie from one of the world’s most sentimental and thoughtful filmmakers: that’s exactly the sort of stuff that award committees East and West alike eat up.
To the movie’s regret, like the Blue Dragon, it came home with squat on December 9.
A laundromat owner (Song Kang-ho as Sang-hyeon) and a church employee Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won as Dong-soo) run a side business in human trafficking. The two monitor the church’s baby box—a last resort for mothers unable or unwilling to raise a child to whom they’ve already given birth—and steal children when possible, nabbing them before the church orphanage gets their hands on them, and then sell them on the black market.
Well, sort of. The black market isn’t the hidden sex trafficking circuits of nightmares but rather the adoption black market for families unable to adopt legally: gay couples, unofficially married couples, etc… Still, in legal terms, it is human trafficking. In typical Kore-eda fashion (Shoplifters), you never really distrust Sang-hyeon or Dong-soo, or even IU’s Moon So-young, the mother of a baby left in the box who returns for her child only to find him in the possession not of the church she trusted but of two strangers who want to sell him on the black market and promise to give her half their profits. (Abortion was decriminalized in South Korea in 2021.) The impeccable casting alone almost prevents distrust: Song’s closest English equivalent might be the ever-so trusty Tom Hanks, Gang plays Dong-soo with tremendous gentleness, and IU’s quietness and shyness imbues stereotypical innocence.
But Kore-eda’s script wouldn’t allow for distrust anyways. His imaginative re-casting of certain family themes and issues in Korea (and Japan)—abortion, murder, human trafficking, motherhood—never fails to see the very best in humanity at its messiest and ugliest. An interesting point of comparison is the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (2022), where Mantis uses her powers to bypass the consent of Kevin Bacon; she’s a good guy, a literal guardian of the Galaxy—a fact that seems etched in stone regardless of how she uses her abilities. Guardians’ director James Gunn loves his characters to the point of ignorance. Kore’eda loves his “heroes” without turning a blind eye: his camera seems especially interested in their dirty laundry. And given that Broker makes you root for a found family of human traffickers, his newest picture likely cements his place as one of the world’s most prominent anti-Manichean filmmakers.
It’s a simple film, really, and that’s reflected in the filmmaking choices. In the film’s funniest sequence, the found family puts Sang-hyeon’s laundry-filled mini-van through a driving car wash. Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo), a child from an orphanage who wants to be adopted so bad he surreptitiously stows away in the trunk of the van, unexpectedly opens the window in the middle of the wash, soaking Sang-hyeon, Dong-soo, Moon So-young, and her baby in a moment of Charlie Chaplin simplicity. The gag is so simple, yet so effective that I cackled and choked on my beer.
Regardless of the film’s definite genius, in all likelihood, Broker’s best chances were with Song Kang-ho in the Best Actor category—an award he took home at Cannes—but even Song came up short, being bested by Park Hae-il for his role in the night’s big winner. And despite being up for Best Film, a category that Decision to Leave easily claimed, Kore-eda and his crew were not nominated for Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, or Best Film Editing. Perhaps something else was at work: Tang Wei, a Chinese actor and the expected winner for Best Actress in Decision to Leave, also lost to Yum Jung-ah for her role in the musical Life Is Beautiful, maybe a hint of the selection committee’s domestic favoritism? Despite my profuse fondness for Broker, Decision to Leave still fully deserved the award.
Award or no, Broker is one of the must-watch films to come out of South Korea this year.
dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
Opens Friday, 1/6 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre