(AP) — The Korean drama “Broker” begins like a noir. In Busan’s middle of the night, a young woman walks slowly in the pouring rain. Her thin hood doesn’t do much to keep her dry. She looks haunted but determined and soon we see her destination: A church with a collection receptacle labeled “Baby Box.” It’s then, from behind, that we see something squirming under her large, hooded jacket. She doesn’t open it, though. The infant boy is laid on his back and wrapped in his blanket before she walks off.
Two detectives have been assigned to the baby’s box. Soo-jin, also known as Bae Doona, goes to get the baby into the box. Detective Lee (Lee Jooyoung), follows the mysterious woman. They suspect that an illegal child trafficking ring operates out of the church, and they need to capture the perpetrators during a sale.
Yet “Broker” is not an edge-of-your-seat crime thriller or maudlin drama. Two cops are on the trail of several men who run a shadowy operation selling abandoned and orphaned children to wealthy owners. Yes, there is a shadow of a large and powerful criminal syndicate. Yes, there are many abandonment issues.
Hirokazu Kore-eda, writer and director, had another idea. In “Broker,” he’s made a quiet road trip film about some gentle souls in difficult situations and the makeshift family they become.
Anyone who has seen the Japanese filmmaker’s “Shoplifters” will recognize some similar throughlines, from the family aspect to its gentle approach towards people on the fringes of society — but “Broker” takes things a step further by playing around with gender roles and expectations in unexpected and enlightening ways, making the detectives women and men the ones wearing the baby carriers.
The babybox is not a vision of a dystopian future. In fact, it was a reality in Japan and Korea. Although intended for good, it has also been controversial. Was it enabling parents to “throw away” children too easily, some wondered. Was it a public service to the most vulnerable in societies with single mothers shamed?
These questions are asked in the film, and gently debated, but “Broker” isn’t interested in definitive answers or moralizing, but instead empathy for both the mothers in impossible situations and the children haunted by their abandonment.
Ha Sang-hyeon (played by Song Kang-ho of “Parasite”) is the lead broker of the operation, but he is not a slimy, soulless criminal mastermind using the babies and kids as a mere means to a profitable end. His de facto daycare seems to be a place of care and attention for even the most helpless and vulnerable infants.
He and his right-hand man, Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) discover a note with this newest arrival: His name is Woo-sung and his mother says she’ll be back for him. They know from experience that this is not always true, especially if there are no parents left. However, the first twist is that Moon Soyong (Lee Jieun), the mother, does come back. Soon the trio are on a mission to sell Woosung (a Goldilocks-type scenario). There is a light and almost comic touch to some of these interactions that also doesn’t trivialize things.
“Broker” is definitely a slow burn that can feel a bit repetitive at times, though the introduction of Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo) as an 8-year-old orphan with Premier League dreams helps get the film over a meandering hump.
It also packs an emotional punch and has some surprises yet, but most importantly it’s a reminder that filmmakers looking to explore society’s ills don’t need to make something a misery fest to do so effectively and powerfully.
“Broker,” a NEON release now playing in theaters, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “some language.” Running time: 129 minutes. Three stars out of 4.
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