The question of choice is central to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker. In his latest film, the Japanese filmmaker turns his gaze on South Korea and the divisive issue of baby boxes. A baby box is essentially a place where parents can safely deposit their newborn children – ostensibly until they can get back on their feet, and usually as a last resort. For single mother So-young (Lee Ji-eun), the box is a place where she can leave her son, Woo-sung, without fear of judgment.
The opposite is true when she brings her child to a church on a rainy Busan night. There’s no solitude in the lowest moment of her life; So-young is still being watched, recorded, and judged by the two cops staking her out nearby. The shrewd Soo-jin (Bae Doona) delivers the statement that opens Broker – “Don’t have a baby if you’re just going to throw it away” – as she and her younger partner Lee (Lee Joo-young) watch So-young do just that. There’s also a sense of disapproval where baby boxes are concerned, a question of whether the practice itself is ethical. To Soo-jin, the boxes only encourage irresponsible mothers.
But Lee is one of the few who sees past the apparent heartlessness of So-young’s decision. In a perfect world, So-young would have the resources to support Woo-sung. She probably could have been persuaded to keep him. That, however, is a job for social services. Once the baby’s in the box (or, in the case of Woo-sung, left just outside of it), responsibility falls to Soo-jin and Lee.
It may seem callous, but their practice actually has a purpose. Single mothers are not their target, and neither is the church facilitating these unorthodox adoptions. Two of this particular church’s volunteers, Dong-soo (Kang Dong-won) and his associate Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), have been stealing away unwanted babies and brokering adoptions on the black market. And so Broker uses these two wild cards to introduce another fate for the box babies. What Dong-soo and Sang-hyeon are doing is textbook human trafficking, but then what’s the alternative? Most mothers, even the ones who say they’ll come back for their children, never return. And the world is full of countless parents who, for one reason or another, either can’t have children or get lost trying to navigate their country’s inaccessible adoption standards. Isn’t it better to find a home for these kids, with a family who wants them, by any means necessary?
Such a question would likely have a much simpler answer if a different mother were concerned. But So-young isn’t “most mothers,” and when she comes back for Woo-sung just days later, she’s quick to clock Dong-soo and Sang-hyeon for the opportunists they are. True, their intentions are pure enough, but they’re still exploiting a flawed system in order to alleviate their dire financial straits. Rather than expose their operation, though, So-young surprises us once again. She knows she can’t offer Woo-sung the life he deserves. So she agrees to help them find a proper family for her child…for a small cut of the profits, of course.
Broker is very much in line with the greatest stories coming out of East Asia in recent years, so hyper-specific you have to see them to believe. Not unlike Kore-eda’s own Shoplifters, Broker takes an impartial, cheeky approach to a tale that almost demands its teller’s judgment. And not unlike awards season-darling Drive My Car, Broker takes its disparate, fractured heroes and creates a divine union out of their connection. Kore-eda takes the notion that we’re all the narrator of our own story a step further with Broker, turning the film into a real exercise in perspective: a reminder that everyone has a life, a tragic past, a chip on their shoulder. Everyone’s is a story worth knowing. It’s not enough to look at someone and think you know their story. Least of all from afar. This is a lesson everyone has to learn, especially where Woo-sung’s fate is concerned.
The question of choice divides Broker‘s characters into two camps: those ambivalent about the baby box, and those who take personal offense. Unlike the happy-go-lucky Sang-hyeon, Dong-soo carries major resentment for any mother who would give up her child. In So-young and countless mothers like her, Dong-soo sees the woman who gave him up when he was just a baby. He might now exploit the baby boxes for his own gain, but he also does it to save abandoned children from a life in an orphanage. Naturally, his principles put him at odds with So-young from the outset. And while their animosity eventually simmers into something with real promise later on, the same can’t exactly be said for So-young’s prickly rapport with Detective Soo-jin.
It’s not uncommon to find people who harbor the same grudge against wayward mothers, especially in a nation with morals as strict as South Korea’s. Still, it’s not quite clear whether this reaction is a manifestation of conservative ideals or a weak spot in Broker’s narrative. It’d have been nice to learn a bit more about Soo-jin and her own inner life, her motivations beyond from developing a case against Dong-soo and Sang-hyeon. Broker is so focused on the one issue connecting all these characters that it doesn’t stop to consider what else might be worth exploring. And because the connections all hinge on everyone’s opinion of So-young, a lot of the film’s characters come across unfortunately one-note.
Which isn’t to say that Broker‘s cast isn’t utterly compelling. So-young is rarely able to defend herself against characters that would judge her (or, worse, pity her), but she’s far from the victim of this story. That’s due in part to Lee Ji-eun, who elevates the role she’s been given. She’s tender when we expect her to be tough; she forgives the world that’s turned her back on her and eventually opens her heart to those she should hate the most. She carries herself with the dignity of a woman who doesn’t feel the need to explain herself to anyone. But so much of her character is obscured – sometimes figuratively; sometimes, thanks to truly clever shot design, literally. So-young is so used to being overlooked that she’s learned to use it to her advantage. It’s hard to know exactly what she’s thinking, especially in tense moments with Dong-soo and Soo-jin, The moments when she does finally open up, then, are all the more rewarding.
Bae Doona brings her A-game as always. She leans into Soo-jin’s pragmatism without coming off as callous, and her quiet moments with Lee — as they stake out in their car, slurping ramen from cups and trading barbs about their case — shine with a subdued, sisterly affection. On the other end of this spectrum is Song Kang-ho’s Sang-hyeon, who doles out affection like it’s second nature. As with most of the ensemble, Sang-hyeon yearns for community, for validity — but he doesn’t need to receive it in order to give it. Song’s trademark affability brings a wonderful warmth to the character, and provides the perfect patriarch for this host of broken people to rally around.
The beauty of Broker lies in its subtle irony. As mismatched as this ensemble is, as fixed in their own goals and beliefs as they are, they still find a way to fit together. Every time the film stumbles, there’s a magic in the tiny moments between characters that makes up for it. In Broker, everyone is family, whether they want to be or not, and whether or not they feel like they deserve it. Half the excitement of watching this film comes from its characters’ discovery of what they are to one another and what they could be together. Kore-eda has taken what looks like a collection of truly disparate elements – an impromptu baby-selling road trip, an earnest police investigation, and even a half-baked murder subplot – and assembled what turns out to be a lullaby of a film, one that hums with indelible electricity.
To empathize, to forgive, is an exhilarating act in Kore-eda’s world. To love, even if just for a moment, and even if no one is watching, should be a natural instinct. By turning our gaze to a microcosmic, unconventional found family, Broker wants us to remember that there’s no reward attached and to do all of the above anyway. It’s a chance to remember that it’s not only children who need that grace.