“Its warmth and heart is earned from the depths of its searching core.”
by Ken Bakely
It would be easy to accuse Broker (or some of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s work more broadly) of a trite sentimentality, and some certainly have. But this overlooks the simple fact that a lesser director – one merely interested in making their viewers feel good – would not be as comfortable as he is with asking questions that he doesn’t ever promise simple answers to. This isn’t a film that debates its issues or its characters, even though it would be so easy; it has too much interest in them and respect for its audience to reduce the story in such a way, and its warmth and heart is earned from the depths of its searching core.
Set in South Korea, the story begins with So-young (Lee Ji-eun), a woman who drops her infant son off at a Busan church that has a baby box, which anonymously receives babies and provides for them until they are taken to orphanages or foster care. Unbeknownst to her, she is being watched by two detectives: the experienced Soo-jin (Doona Bae), and her junior partner (Lee Joo-young). They’re investigating what happens after the baby is taken in by the church – nearby laundry owner Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) is actually running a secret operation in which he takes these children to be unofficially adopted by parents who wish to bypass the bureaucracy of the legitimate adoption process and pay him upfront. This is extremely illegal, obviously. He and his accomplice, Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), are prepared to continue their scheme when So-young suddenly returns to see her child off – an eventuality that has never happened to them before. The trio, with the baby and school-aged orphan Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo) set off across the country to follow leads from parents willing to pay big money for an unsanctioned adoption, while the detectives try to catch them.
We learn a lot about everyone in the process – not only the film’s ostensible mysteries, like the details of Soo-jin’s backstory, or how a seemingly unconnected murder investigation factors into the plot – but how this ragtag group will grow closer, forming their own ties in these bizarre circumstances. Broker is deeply invested in how all of these characters make choices in the moment, and how that is influenced by their own lives and their interactions with each other. There is nothing right, legally speaking, about the operation that Sang-hyeon is running, and it’s impossible for some characters to imagine what brought So-young to these circumstances in the first place. But they must contend with what they’re doing now; Kore-eda does not sidestep moral quandaries or even judgments, but he recognizes that the real surprise and true meaning of the story is looking deeper at what’s driving them and their decisions, and that’s where the actual self-examination of their lives originates. No one is certain that they’re making the right choices here, or making them in the right ways – no one ever could be, not even the headsure lead detective, after a point – and instead of making pat statements, Kore-eda makes the much harder choice of simply following these people. You watch them navigate the world, rationalizing the choices they make. And most critically, you watch them in relation to each other – whether they’re for each other, against each other, or tentatively alongside each other – as a complex sense of community begins to take shape.
Everyone here, in some way or another, needs one another, perhaps in ways they couldn’t ever understand. Kore-eda focuses on the organic ways that these connections emerge and evolve – from the circumstances they’re born from to the ways that the characters gradually become aware of them. On a literal level, Sang-hyeon and his crew are searching for families outside the biological definition of the term, as they choose the adoptive parents for So-young’s baby – but far more obvious and central to the film’s philosophy is the family that they come to constitute together. This is Broker’s richly realized emotional center, and Kore-eda doesn’t need much more; in fact, late efforts to quickly and neatly wrap the story up, while nice from a certain aesthetic standpoint, feel somewhat out of place. We didn’t need them – not when his writing is already so sincere, nuanced, and empathetic, and not when his fine cast of actors already understand the complexities of their roles so well. They contrast the feelings and ideas they share with each other, with the stories they conceal for themselves – but they also recognize that these same secrets are what drive their characters from the get-go. It’s a delicate balance, but so is the rest of the movie: it quietly and thoughtfully explores the echoes and reflections between the stated contours of its plot, what the characters in that story are doing, and the overarching themes that their lives represent.
Watch: Prime Video / Blu-ray