Movie review: Broker

(courtesy IMP Awards)

Finding a place to belong, and by extension, people to belong to, is central to what makes us human.

We are a tribal people, and without the emotional touchstone of those whom we consider family, we can find ourselves strangely unmoored, our experience of human interaction truncated by being rendered an emotional island when that was never an innate part of our humanity.

Just how important being part of an emotional intimate and mutually supportive group is for people is touchingly and honestly tackled in Broker, a film from director Hirokazu Kore-eda which focuses on a number of key characters, all of whom find themselves linked in ways none of them expected.

Ha Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), who owns a legal laundry business while engaging in a baby re-selling enterprise with his friend, Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) who takes the babies from a nearby church’s baby box which is intended to provide a way for mothers under stress to leave their children somewhere safe.

One of those women is Moon So-young (Lee Ji-eun), a young sex worker who, overwhelmed by the birth of her son Woo-sung, born into complicated circumstances that eventually prove too much for her, leaves him in the baby box, unaware he will be spirited onto the South Korean adoption black market.

When So-young, regretting her actions of the night before, returns to retrieve Dong-soo, she is shocked to discover what Ha Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo are up to, and demands that if they are going to shop her son around – her motivation is purely to make sure he goes to good parents who will love and care for him in ways she simply cannot – that she goes with them.

Thus, begins the strangest and ultimately most emotionally charged of all road trips, with the four unlikely baby brokers eventually joined by plucky orphan Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo) who is determined to find a family who’ll adopt him come what may.

Their journey begins as a purely transactional undertaking, a means to an end, with everyone simply wanting to get the job as quickly as possible with minimum fuss and maximum return.

What the five people who somehow become a close found family on the road, a development which gives Broker a huge amount of resonant heart-and-soul, don’t realise is that they are being tracked the whole way by two female police detectives, Soo-jin (Bae Doona, The Silent Sea) and Lee (Lee Joo-young), who believe it’s the perfect opportunity to bring down people they see as nothing more than a criminal gang.

But just like our band of baby brokers, who may talk a tough financial game but who are all wounded in their own ways and unknowingly seeking connection, Soon-jin soon becomes emotionally invested in the pursuit in a way that has less to do with procuring a prosecution and far more to do with looking after the welfare of So-young and her son.

This move from objective goal fulfillment to emotional entanglement is slow and unexpectedly meaningful for everyone concerned, every last one of them scarred in some way by life and driven up until that point by the simply need to get through the day.

This move from sheer survival on a whatever it takes basis to actually giving damn about the people around them and working actively for a collective benefit rather than a singular one informs Broker with a delightful joyousness and hope that, while it doesn’t quite deliver a full fairytale ending, finds far more more than is good than bad about life at the story’s end.

Filled with an innate humanity that buoys the spirit as it becomes clear that these five lonely people – and yes, while she’s on the other side of the law, in sheer human terms, Soo-jin is definitely in the same emotional camp as her quarry – have found something they didn’t know they were looking for, Broker is an unalloyed joy that still appreciates how tough life can be.

As it dawns on everyone that they actually care about each other and that what was an unholy alliance of unwed mother, baby brokering criminals and a plucky orphan with a soccer ball has become something warmly better entirely, no one can escape the fact that they are still facing some major existential challenges.

So-young still has to face the consequences from running from the criminal underworld in which she once lived while Dong-soo and Ha sang-hyeon are still stuck with no quick remedies for their dire financial situations and gorgeously rambunctious Hae-jin can’t escape the fact that he is, and remains, an orphan.

Even Soo-jin, while ostensibly simply about upholding the law and bringing the brokers to justice, is also gravely conflicted and emotionally lost, bearing a burden so great it is always writ large on her quietly expressive face.

These are people who have embraced the idea of being an emotional island because they’ve had little choice but to do so, but Broker slowly and surely offers them the chance to have something more, to dare to dream that something exists beyond the pragmatic need to just survive.

It’s a wonderfully beautiful and heartwarmingly funny journey that comes alive in ways that is soberingly cognizant of the many challenges they all face but also aware that it is possible for life to be something more than utilitarian exigency.

Broker is no happy-ever-after fairytale and is grounded enough to know that life never wraps itself up with neat, consequence-free outcomes, but there is so much love, hope and good humour percolating through this humanistic gem of a film that it’s hard not to feel better about life as you leave the cinema, knowing all too well that even a little win against the dark challenges of being alive makes a day good and the future not as grim as it might otherwise be, especially if you are surrounded by people who love you and will fight for you in whatever corner you find yourself, come what may.

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