Reel Thoughts: ‘Thank you for being born’: ‘Broker’ explores brokenness through the lens of dignity and care


Illustration by Emily Lichty

Song Kang-ho, who plays Sang-hyeon, received the Best Actor award at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

Esther Lim, Reporter

Content warning: This article contains mentions of child trafficking.

This story also contains mild spoilers.

To raise a child, it takes a village. And his young mother. And a runaway orphan. And two criminals. And two police officers caught in a moral dilemma.

The story of the movie “Broker” begins on a stormy night outside a church in Busan, South Korea, where So-young (Lee Ji-Eun, stage name IU) leaves her son Woo-Sung (Park Ji-Yong) outside a “baby box,” a cabinet where parents are able to anonymously place their infants to be collected and cared for.

From a distance, two police officers stake out the church, where two men, Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) receive baby Woo-Sung from the baby box. Convinced his mother will never reclaim him, they decide to sell him to couples who cannot conceive through the adoption black market.

Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo aren’t exactly the calculating criminal type: They express genuine hopes of providing a better home for the infants. For Sang-hyeon, it’s also quick cash for his financially struggling laundromat. For Dong-soo, who himself grew up in an orphanage, it’s a personal crusade to get kids out of institutions. The presence of the police investigation grounds audiences in the reality that despite this moral gray area, these two characters are criminals.

When So-young returns to the church the next day, the duo bring her to Woo-Sung. Sang-hyeon describes their work to her as “angels” or “twin storks” delivering her son to a loving family, to which So-young scoffs, “You’re just brokers.”

Ultimately, she and a stowaway orphan boy who sneaks into Sang-hyeon’s rickety van, join the pair on a road trip journey in search of the best parents to raise baby Woo-Sung.

What unfolds is a surprisingly high-tension plot intertwining murder, police investigations and an exploration of the adoption system’s dark sides and society’s failure to support young mothers.

Despite the intense subject matter, the movie never once raises its voice at the cast of characters.

The movie is profoundly gentle in its treatment of this group of broken people who find a family with one other. It is noticeably tranquil in the moments where you would expect great action and reaction. In this tonal quietness, director Kore-Eda Hirokazu crafts a space for these characters, who are desperate to heal open wounds left by their longing to belong to someone, to exist with dignity, thoughtfulness and reflection.

At the climax, characters’ dark pasts and uncertain futures surface and pressures from external forces finally corner the ensemble. This stands in stark contrast to the almost idyllic atmosphere of the rest of the movie, through which audiences see the characters find a safe haven through each other. When this safety starts to break down at the crux of the movie, there is nothing you want more than for this odd party of outcasts to return to a world of comfort and peace.

Yet when this is stripped from our characters, Kore-Eda handles the tension and the drama with such care and respect so the audience does not only pity or feel sad for the characters. Kore-Eda pushes audiences to see our characters, especially So-young, and their choices through a lens of love, understanding and hope.

This effect could not have been possible without the cast, whose brilliant performances gives the movie a documentary-like authenticity. However, there were moments where the scenes left me wanting more, especially knowing this cast’s sheer potential from other works. As naturalistic and genuine as the performances feel, the writing feels restraining, and the aforementioned gentleness is sometimes overpowering and comes off as over-polished storytelling. There’s so much room in this story for the characters to be messier, angrier, more devastated or more in love.

At its core, “Broker” is a movie about broken people existing in a broken system. Kore-Eda approaches this reality with both tender-hearted empathy and honesty — it’s hard to say that the characters get to enjoy a happy ending. But the ending is brimming with so much possibility and offers a strange sense of excitement as we see life return to some sense of normalcy.

For a movie with such a strong message about society, the ending is not revolutionary. It’s hard to say the status quo is disrupted. It seems, then, that the reason why this story matters is because of this possibility: These characters find joy, solace and love and can continue on in spite of this brokenness.

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Twitter: @EshLim1213

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