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Song Kang-ho in Broker (2022). Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Even though it is somewhat obvious where his character’s arc is heading, it is still painful to witness Song, right, come up against it once the moment arrives.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

  • Broker
  • Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
  • Starring Song Kang-ho, Gang Dong-won and Bae Doona
  • Classification R; 129 minutes
  • Opens at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto Dec. 30, expands across Canada Jan. 13

I hold a special end-of-year memory in my heart of watching Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters in that grey-zone week between Christmas and New Year’s back in 2018. During a particularly rough patch in my life, I sought refuge from the cold and merry outside world by huddling inside the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto to catch a weekday matinee of Kore-eda’s wry, wrenching dramedy, which followed a makeshift family of thieves operating on the fringes of Tokyo. The film, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier that year, was just the kind of light-touch dose of humanity that made me feel, briefly, whole. It helped carry the waning days of a year gone sour.

For that, I’ll always retain a soft spot for Kore-eda, even going to bat for his immediate follow-up, 2019′s family drama The Truth, the director’s first film not in his native language – the France-set film is shot in a mix of French and English – that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. Just as my Shoplifters nostalgia is what helped carry me through Broker, Kore-eda’s latest, which expands his borders (it is shot in Korea) but not his themes. Almost a beat-for-beat remix of Shoplifters, Broker once again finds the filmmaker building an outside-the-law family from scratch. Yet where Shoplifters hit each of its notes with a quiet confidence that resonated deeply, Broker too frequently goes broad and wide, resulting in a story that doesn’t earn the happiness that its flawed characters desire, and eventually achieve.

The concept is strong, though, with the film sketching a gentle cat-and-mouse game. On one side are two low-level criminals (played by Song Kang-ho and Gang Dong-won) who steal babies left by mothers in a church’s “baby box” and sell them off to couples who cannot conceive on their own. Chasing them down, however slowly and ineffectively, are two odd-couple detectives (Bae Donna and Lee Joo-young). And soon thrown into the mix are a single mother (Lee Ji-eun) who regrets giving up her child, a mafia chief, a cute little kid who runs away from his orphanage, and one very curious reference to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia.

There are so many of Broker’s pieces that seem like they might fit together with ease, but ultimately Kore-eda is operating in an area where sentimentality triumphs over sensibility, resulting in a forced, janky picture once assembled. And for a road-trip movie, there is an awful lot of narrative importance placed on the destination rather than the journey. I don’t recall if that kid who stows away on the crooks’ car ride ever whines, “Are we there yet?”, but it sure felt like I might toward the film’s halfway point.

Open this photo in gallery:
Song Kang-ho and Dong-won Gang in Broker (2022). Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Song Kang-ho and Dong-won Gang in Broker.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

What saves Broker, though, is its leading man Song. Just as the Korean superstar anchored Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Song offers Kore-eda a slippery presence that keeps the rest of the film on its toes. Even though it is somewhat obvious where his character’s arc is heading, it is still painful to witness Song come up against it once the moment arrives.

Is Song’s performance worth a trip to the Lightbox during these limbo-y final days of the year? The 2018 version of me wouldn’t hesitate. And the 2022 me might capitulate, too, if I had a sudden hole in my calendar and a desire to come in from the cold.

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