Lee Ji Eun, Gang Dong Won and Song Kang Ho in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker; courtesy of Neon

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Leave it to Hirokazu Kore-eda to make a heartwarming, gentle film about human trafficking. Broker, the latest from the Japanese writer-director, finds him in South Korea with a kind of premise that could have easily been crafted into a grisly thriller. His characters are kidnappers, the police, and members of the mob, while a mother deals with residual guilt from abandoning her child. Since this is Kore-eda we are talking about, who is known for delicate dramas like Shoplifters and After the Storm, there is the cumulative sense that no character is easily defined. They all try to make sense of a bad situation. It might be a little too slight, always striving for maximum poignancy, and yet it succeeds through a quiet command of tone.

The opening sequence centers around a “baby box,” a kind of receptacle where a new parent can anonymously abandon their child safely. When So-young (Lee Ji Eun) heads to this box with adorable little Woo-sung (Park Ji Yong), two groups of people watch her carefully. Sang-hyeon (Song Kang Ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong Won) run an illegal adoption ring, a kind of “brokerage” that circumvents the Korean bureaucracy so babies can be quickly paired with eager parents, instead of languishing in the orphanage where Dong-soo works.

Detectives Soo-jin (Doona Bae) and Lee (Lee Joo Young) hope to catch the two brokers red-handed in the sale of Woo-sung, which means following them as they seek prospective parents on the black market. What complicates matters is how So-young tags along with Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo, serving as mother and temporary caretaker. These four become an unlikely family unit as they trek across South Korea, following up on leads that mostly go nowhere. (The asking figure for Woo-sung is about 10 million won—roughly $8,000.)

Kore-eda does something tricky with our sympathies and expectations: He gets us to identify with the brokers, whose major preoccupation is looking for a fair price. A typical movie kidnapper would have zero patience for the baby, with its cries escalating the tension of the sale. Woo-sung is remarkably well-behaved, in part because the premise crumbles with a shrieking child, but also because Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo are thoughtful caregivers. They also have dramatically plausible reasons for criminal activity: Dong-soo was an orphan and wants to spare as many children as possible from being state-raised. This creates tension between him and So-young, who has more say in her child’s fate than typical biological parents who give their child up for adoption. Broker is rife with arguments and disagreements, and Kore-eda ably suggests this legal and ethical gray area means all the characters can empathize with each other more easily.

Broker develops an episodic nature, a cycle of caregiving and deal-making. As observers of Sang-hyeon and the others, the detectives serve as moral foils to the kidnapping plot. Perhaps it is more expedient to match Woo-sung with desperate parents, but it’s also illegal, and the prospect of an orphanage is not exactly a death sentence. The appearance of Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo), a ward at Dong-soo’s orphanage, drives home that final point. A happy-go-lucky kid, despite his circumstances, Hae-jin underscores the de facto family dynamics between the brokers, So-young, and Woo-sung because his presence suggests what many of us already know: Family is more than biological and legal bonds. Like many other like-minded films, Broker argues that familiarity is the fastest path toward affection, and here there is the added subtext that everyone agrees illegal adoption is the best path for Woo-sung. Kore-eda is asking a lot of viewers and forgoes many plot points—somehow Hae-jin, who is  still stuck in the orphanage, does not resent Woo-sung for escaping it—and the unaffected, natural performances help us accept the lack of urgency.

Despite the sharply defined characters and drama punctuated by Jung Jae-il’s quiet, evocative music, to watch this film is to engage a constant willingness to suspend your disbelief. Although gangsters are also pursuing Woo-sung for reasons involving So-young’s past, there is little suspense to match the elevated stakes. Ordinarily, suspense is an important cinematic tool because it invests the audience in the story’s outcome, and without that quality here, we are only left to think about the journey these characters undergo. Kore-eda is not a moralist, instead advancing the view that each person has a context, and we should not be so quick to judge them—especially when a flawed bureaucracy suggests which side is the “right” one. Antiheroes are weirdly easier to accept than these brokers, who look and act like they’re of our world, and not separated by genre theatrics. But Broker gets us to their side inexorably, leading to a final resolution that should feel contrived, and yet finds the right note for all the characters, even little Woo-sung who never asked for this much attention.

Broker opens in theaters everywhere starting Jan. 13.