Brokers

a revelatory road trip with one too many detours

“If you’re going to abandon a baby, you shouldn’t have given birth to him,” Detective Soo-jin (The Silent Sea’s Bae Doo-na) coldly remarks as she watches a young woman, So-young (IU), leave her baby outside a church’s baby box on a rainy night. Her sentiment is one shared by many critics of the baby box system in South Korea, which allows parents to safely let go of their unwanted children. It encourages irresponsible young women to have babies on a whim, claims the detective, providing a convenient out when they change their minds about parenthood.

When a regretful So-young returns in search of her son the next morning, baby box volunteer Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) takes her to a run-down laundry shop owned by the debt-ridden Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho of Parasite fame). Turns out, the pair have been stealing infants left in baby boxes and supplying them to prospective parents who are unable to adopt legally… for exuberant sums of money. It’s textbook child trafficking, though Song’s warm, genial smile may suggest otherwise.

Despite being tailed by Detective Soo-jin and her partner Detective Lee (Lee Joo-young) the entire time, there is an odd sense of dissonance from the reality of what the pair are doing, with Sang-hyun even going as far as to describe himself as a “benevolent broker” at one point, though So-young swiftly shoots the notion down. Still, desperate for a say in where her son ends up (and perhaps, for those few extra hours with him), the young mother reluctantly joins them in seeking a new home for the child.

This, of course, does not go as smoothly as expected. The trio struggle to find acceptable parents for Woo-sung, running into countless hiccups, from low-balling buyers to overzealous debt-collectors and more, all while our detective duo lie in wait to catch them in the act. Elsewhere, the body of a man is found at a motel, sparking a frantic murder investigation. If it sounds like way too much is happening, that’s because way too much is happening. Still, as messy as the journey is, the emotional voyage is nothing short of spectacular. It’s in these moments where Song particularly shines, with Sang-hyun wrestling with his own failure as a father, all while playing judge and jury to who “deserves” to adopt So-young’s son.

On the other side of the fence, Soo-jin grows increasingly empathetic towards the group as she tails them, gaining insight to each of their circumstances. Her attitude towards So-young takes the most dramatic shift, and eventually, she comes to the ironic realisation that, in all her detective work, she had ended up wanting to see the baby sold more than anybody else involved in the situation. However, the trajectory of Soo-jin’s character changes rapidly in the final minutes of the film (no spoilers!), abruptly undermining the entire film’s worth of growth.

South Korean film and television buffs will also notice the slew of special appearances by some of the industry’s top stars at almost every turn in Broker. Initially a welcome surprise, these begin to feel like overkill, and later, downright inane – one cameo by comedic actor Lee Dong-hwi (best known for his roles in Reply 1988 and Entourage) sticks out as particularly contrived, his scenes awkwardly transplanted into the film to justify his appearance.

The biggest letdown of Broker, however, is the character of So-young – putting to waste the phenomenal acting chops of IU, as she had proven before in 2018’s gritty My Mister. Perhaps it is weak characterisation on the part of screenwriter and director Hirokazu Kore-eda, but So-young simply does not come off as a fully realised individual. As much as her role as Woo-sung’s mother is the centrepiece of Broker, her personal trauma and stories feel awfully neglected, especially in comparison to that of Dong-soo and Sang-hyun’s. For a film that suggests that the welfare of children should begin with their mothers, Broker sorely misses out on the opportunity to fully delve into So-young’s world.

Despite all its shortcomings, Broker makes for an enjoyable watch, loaded with beautiful moments that will have you laughing and crying with the characters on screen – as is Kore-eda’s signature. While many are rooting for yet another South Korean production to succeed, take the world by storm and join the ranks of more cutting forms of social commentary like Parasite (2019) and Squid Game (2020), the quality of writing in Broker simply falls short. And so, the search continues.

Details

  • Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
  • Starring: Song Kang-ho, Gang Dong-won, Bae Doo-na, IU, Lee Joo-young
  • Release date: June 8

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