Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker arrives more ready for a Westernized remake than any of the Japanese writer-director’s previous mainstream-minded meditations on the fluid meanings of family (Shoplifters, Like Father Like Son). That’s because Broker is already ripened with two cops who serve as a discordant chorus contemplating the morals of this story (or lack thereof). They perform a literal social surveillance on two thieves who pilfer abandoned babies from Baby Boxes that wind up forming an ersatz family bond with their latest abductee and his frazzled mother. Indeed, Broker is the most Snuggie-soft film you’ll ever see about human trafficking.

With no knock on the sturdy performances from Bae Doona (Cloud Atlas) and Lee Joo-young as the cops, these characters clutter far more than they clarify when it comes to Broker’s context. For all the time spent on these characters (including a strangely superfluous reference to a Paul Thomas Anderson film), it doesn’t develop them enough for their factor in the finale to feel like anything beyond convenience. (Ditto the mobsters.) And were Broker presented in English rather than Korean, a line like “We’re almost more of the brokers than them” would send eyes rolling out of heads all the way to a wriggling pile at the front of the auditorium. At least Broker mediates its melodrama into something more on the margins than on the nose.

Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho of Parasite) is a clothes launderer whose fall from grace, driven by drinking and gambling, left him estranged from his daughter and indebted to mobsters for 50 million won (roughly $35,000). If a mother leaves her newborn at a Baby Box — a safe haven for unwanted children — Sang-hyeon sees no harm in handling the babies on the black market himself. 

He’s assisted by Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), who was himself abandoned as a child and who has, as an adult, left the orphanage even as it hasn’t left him. Dong-soo works part-time monitoring a Busan church’s Baby Box, from which he and Sang-hyeon grab babies to sell to wannabe parents who cannot conceive and do not want to roll the adoption dice.

Mothers leaving children in Baby Boxes often leave notes insisting they’ll return. They rarely do. But So-young (Lee Ji-eun) is the exception, a sex worker who comes back the following morning for her son, Woo-sung (Park Ji-yong), and threatens enough trouble that Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo have no choice but to conscript her in their scheme and cut her in on the profit.

A spitfire wild card, So-young will not let Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo sell Woo-sung to just anyone, and thus a quick payday becomes a prolonged road trip to find the proper buyer in a beater Toyota van with a bum back hatch. This trio must also outwit the police on their tail, outrun secrets from their past, and perhaps even outplay one another for a bigger payday.

Kore-eda has never more openly courted the pleasure of a crowd as he does with Broker — to a point where you can almost see the Hollywood version with Leonardo DiCaprio, Timothée Chalamet, Margaret Qualley and Tiffany Haddish in serious mode as one of the cops. But it also casts its eye more on culture than a collegial story of criminality. Kore-eda’s script can get awfully didactic with the cops’ discussions about the finer points of social services. But it otherwise often dazzlingly addresses, and sometimes attacks, the artifice and aggression of the premium placed on the prototypical family unit. Broker captures the desperation and danger of investing too much in the illusion that without a traditional family, you can only fail or fall behind.

Neither does it fall back on frayed “chosen family” homilies amid the burgeoning friendship between Sang-hyeon, Dong-soo, So-young, Woo-sung and Hae-jin (an unexpected young stowaway delightfully played by Im Seung-soo). People who are not our blood can still be proxies for projecting our pains and punching bags for our peccadilloes. It’s all about what you can abnegate and who you can absolve. Steering Broker with confidence, Song is superb at emphasizing Sang-hyeon’s shiftiness and soulfulness. Meanwhile, Gang and Lee Ji-eun match him masterfully; Lee Ji-eun is particularly strong in Broker’s best scene, a vocalized appreciation for these people she’s come to know and a requiem for the child she never will.

The business of life is always just a subtle (or not) art of renegotiating terms on deals we long believed done and dusted. Sometimes we gain. Sometimes we lose. Any mediation on the meaning of it all falls to us. Ultimately rising above its mawkish, melodramatic or mainstream trappings, Broker delivers a drama of deeply human tapestry — one threaded with just enough knotty and rough weaves to feel handmade and abrasive where it matters.

Broker screened at the 2022 Heartland Film Festival. The film is scheduled to open in limited theatrical release on Monday, Dec. 26.