Broker: road film exploring complexities behind illegal baby adoptions in South Korea

Hirokazu Kore-eda, “Broker” (2022)

A young woman brings her baby to a church’s baby box and leaves her child in front of it. She is unaware that she is being observed by two female police detectives in their patrol car. She is also unaware that two volunteers working at the church happen to run an illegal baby-trafficking operation, selling babies to parents desperate to adopt and willing to pay big money to circumvent government regulations on adoptions. A day or so later, the young woman So-young (Lee Ji-eun) has second thoughts about abandoning the baby Woo-sung and returns for him. She discovers who the men are, who have taken her baby – laundry shop owner / manager Ha Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) – and decides to accompany them on a road trip through southern South Korea to meet the prospective adoptive parents. A boy from the church’s orphanage, Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo), goes with the group as well. The police detectives (Bae Doona and Lee Joo-young), who have been investigating Ha’s illegal baby adoption business for some time, follow and track the group closely with the intent to arrest Ha and Dong-soo as soon as they hand the baby over the adopting parents.

So begins a road trip during which we learn more about Ha, Dong-soo and So-young: Ha is estranged from his wife and daughter, Dong-soo himself grew up in the church orphanage not knowing his biological parents or family, and (spoiler alert) So-young is a prostitute on the run for having murdered Woo-sung’s father in a hotel. So-young has also agreed to co-operate with the police to bust Ha’s illegal baby-trafficking side business. Ha and Dong-soo though cleverly manage to evade most ruses the police set up. What complicates matters is that the widow of Woo-sung’s father wants the baby herself and has hired two gangsters to go after Ha’s group.

The film is slow in its first hour, with much of that time spent on character development and the interactions among Ha, his partner in crime, So-young and the police officers. Once Ha and his group are out on the open road to Busan, the film picks up pace and proceeds steadily, though not quickly, to its inevitable climax. Along the way, director Kore-eda poses questions about Korean attitudes towards abandoned babies and the mothers who pop them into baby boxes, and the moral issues surrounding the baby adoption black market. How is it that a situation has been allowed to develop in South Korea in which couples wanting children and unable to have them are willing to pay huge sums of money to obtain babies illegally? Is it better to abort children if one is unable to bring them up? Why is Woo-sung so valuable that people are prepared to pay 40 million won for him? Ha and Dong-soo are operating on the wrong side of the law – and don’t they know it! – yet they seem like essentially good and kind people, looking after So-young and Hae-jin as if they were their own kin; at the same time, these two men have plenty of street cunning and no doubt are capable of killing others (just as So-Young has done) or betraying each other to the authorities to save their own skin.

As in a previous film of his (“Shoplifters”), Kore-eda poses questions about what makes a family and posits that a group of people need not be related to one another to be a family: families can form among strangers once they have had shared experiences and have learned to work together and cherish one another. Dong-soo and So-young are thrown together in a number of scenes that suggest they might stay together and perhaps raise Woo-sung together. One of the female police detectives seems unusually obsessive about arresting Ha and stopping him from selling Woo-sung to a young husband and wife in Busan.

The actors work well together and Song especially gives a great performance as Ha the laundry shop owner with a criminal record that hints at other shady things he has done. From a slightly clownish and perhaps not very bright character living on the margins of society and navigating a fine balance between staying on the right side of the law and engaging in dubious, even illegal activities, Ha is revealed to be a man of greater complexity and mystery than his outward personality and demeanour would suggest. Lee does good work as well as So-young, the young prostitute who has perhaps unwittingly fallen into a dark criminal world and is now running away from it. Perhaps having Woo-sung was originally her ticket to getting out of those criminal connections and murdering his father may have been underlined her decision to escape.

The sub-plot involving the widow and the gangsters is so insubstantial that it might have been better left out – but then So-young’s backstory would not have had the poignancy it had and her motivations for killing Woo-sung’s father would perhaps remain unknown. The climax is devastating when it comes, and the denouement is as unrealistic as it is unexpected. Too many characters perhaps experience happy outcomes and though nearly everyone gets what s/he wants, one senses that a happy family that should have been, has gone forever.

Kore-eda’s direction gives the film a sentimental quality which not everyone may like but the way in which the characters are carefully and clearly delineated, and their dilemmas and motivations are revealed, helps to peel away the complex issues and troubling ethics surrounding illegal baby adoptions. What we do not learn much though, is how social hierarchies and their impacts and effects on individuals in South Korea, along with the values of a commercial society, feed the market for illegal adoptions.