Review: Grim but Transparent, ‘Broker’ Re-tells That Not All Ties Stem From Blood

Broker (2022) is a heart-warming movie with a linear narrative, with no plot-twist or any extravagant climax. It is a sentimental yet carefully crafted expression of relationships that might not necessarily stem from blood. 

Hirokazu Koreeda extends, with this film, his deep cut exploration of the idea of a “family” and continues to make his viewers question their understanding of the (gendered) roles of a family. Similar but distinct from his other films Nobody Knows (2004), Like Father, Like Son (2013), Our Little Sister (2015) and Shoplifters (2018), Broker (2022) makes one rethink about the values and prejudices associated with a “certain type” of people: Sang-hyeon, an ex-prisoner and a divorced father; Dong-soo, an abandoned child who is now an adult but is not entitled to enlist in the military since he does not come from a “respectable” family; So-young, a sex-worker turned mother turned murderer turned dealer of her own child; Hae-jin, a boy who is looking for his escape in the desperate hope of finding a family, and Woo-sung, the infant who is to be sold off by his own mother to an unknown yet longing couple.

All of them share a commonality: abandonment. Dong-soo and Hae-jin were abandoned as a child, Sang-hyeon was abandoned by his family post-divorce and So-young is going to abandon her child Woosung.

Koreeda treats the characters (although framed in the conventional roles of the misfits) with a subtle sentimentality that justifies their actions as we see in their character development. We, together with detectives Soo-jin and Lee, start empathising with the characters. It forces the viewers to shift their gaze from a judgmental point of view to a more humanistic understanding, given their socio-economic location. This shift is evident in the way the characters are under the police radar, constantly being followed. However, after a point, the viewers are left rooting for the brokers’ escape. In some way, Koreeda makes the viewers feel for the characters. 

Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) are brokers of infants who are abandoned and deposited at the baby-box. But in a strange way, the nature of their work leans slightly towards social service. Sang-hyeon is a divorced parent who does not have custody of his daughter and gets to meet her rarely. He is someone who has been to prison and is burdened with financial incapability to pay the loan sharks. He is a character who has more to lose than to preserve. But throughout the film, we see his character taking the role of the nurturing figure among the lot. He is the one who bathes, feeds, embraces, plays and at the end of the day, lays the baby to sleep. All these connote his effort in making amends for the things he missed doing for his now broken family. It is as though he is trying to take care of the new family in every possible way.

This can be felt in the last scene where they are trying to run away with the baby but are stopped by the thug Shin Tae-ho. Sang-hyeon asks Dong-soo and Hae-jin to go ahead to save them from the trouble and eventually ends up killing the thug to protect his family at any cost. 

Dong-soo, on the other hand, was abandoned by his mother at an orphanage with a note that read “I will come back to pick you up”. This line further ignites nothing but bitter memories and cynicism from him to a point where he bears a grudge against every parent who abandons their child. 

He works at the church where he takes care of the baby box, a concept where infants are dropped off by parents who are not capable of taking care of the child anymore. It is as if Dong-soo is making up for his mother’s mistake in trying to provide a better and healthier living environment for the abandoned children but through a crooked approach, of course. He steals the infants from the church with the help of Sang-hyeon and puts them up on the black market for adoption. The method is definitely not the safest but he does strive to find a better living environment for a child. This we see in the way he meticulously interrogates potential buyers/parents as part of the bargain. Because according to their past experiences, children who have been adopted do not necessarily end up in good hands. After all, at the end of the day, the agenda is to find a suitable home for the abandoned children but at a cost. 

So-young (played by the actor Lee Ji-eun and mega K-pop solo artist IU), is the opposite. She is the unabashed, stone-cold and honest mother who is consciously refraining herself from being the “motherly” figure to her son because she knows that she will be prisoned for murder in no time and hence does not want the child to have any memory of her. Instead she longs for a new and loving home for her child even if it means that she has to put her child up for adoption. 

Her character does not fit the conventional “mother” image and resonating characters can be found  in the movie Pieces of a Woman (2020) and The Lost Daughter (2021). So-young is a cold, closed and practical woman who is (but) warm and naive at heart. So-young leaving the child at the baby box could be considered quite inhumane but she also eventually goes back to pick up her child the next morning. She does not speak to her child even once but she certainly won’t let anyone diss her child’s light eyebrows. She won’t stop the brokers from putting her child up for sale in the adoption market only because she wants the best for her child. 

In this way, Koreeda blurs the definition between right and wrong in this film with the aid of Hong Kyung-pyo, cinematographer of The Wailing (2016), Burning (2018) and Parasite (2019), whose tender cinematography uses a lot of visual cues to convey different emotions. He plays with the medium of light and darkness, varied framing sizes and intentionally places the characters in a wide frame against grandeur tall buildings to emphasise their isolation, loneliness and solitude. We also see constant shots of them walking up the steps and them moving to different cities in their van could represent the journey of life. As though, all of them, after finding each other, are moving forward in their lives including Hae-jin, the boy, who also runs away by hiding in the van in order to escape from the orphanage. His life journey also moves forward from then on as opposed to the static life at the orphanage. 

Koreeda again uses darkness to bring out the beauty in So-young’s character who otherwise could be a difficult character to relate with. In the film, in more than three different scenes, we see So-young open up about her life only in pin-point darkness. Firstly, inside the train when it passes by a tunnel, she expresses (honestly) that she did not know if she wanted to take her child back. Secondly, when her eyes are shut inside the ferris wheel ride, she talks about her helplessness and expresses the guilt of being a bad mother. Thirdly, inside the hotel room on their last night together, she thanks them all for being born and lastly, inside the police’s car, she expresses her concern for her child. It is only in this darkness that Kore-eda brings out her true and humane side. The darkness helps the viewers to detach her true self from her cold image by listening to her voice, thus hiding her vulnerability.

Although not one of Koreeda’s greatest works, Broker in all its simplicity has multiple layers of themes in the film. Grim, obscure but transparent, it is a story about longing and belonging, numbness and comfort, selfishness and benevolence and abandonment and restoration. Expressed through the eyes of the characters, all of whom have their origin in broken families or rather non-existent families, it reflects how all of them find comfort, answer and peace through each other’s lives and that not all relationships are rooted in blood.