A HOODED figure arrives outside Busan Family Church one night and gently deposits a baby on the doorstep, leaving a note promising to return. So begins Broker (Cert. 12A), reflecting a practice in South Korean churches over the past decade of providing refuges for unwanted babies who previously would have ended up in bins and subways. Christian congregations have been accused of making it easier for unmarried women to hide the shame. Disposing in this way of illegitimate offspring has dramatically increased the number of orphans left in baby boxes.
With Broker, the renowned Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda continues to explore the consequences of loss. Like Father Like Son (2013) and Shoplifters (2018) follow a similar path. Sang-hyeon (played by the Parasite star Song Kang-ho) volunteers with his partner Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) at their church, handling abandoned children.
They are genuinely nice characters, but that may not be the same as good; for they destroy the mother’s note, together with CCTV footage proving baby Woo-sung’s arrival. It turns out that they are child-traffickers, but (mainly) lovable with it. The pair manage to track down So-young (Lee Ji-eun), the mother, and cut her into the deal to find a couple desperate enough to buy a child. Two detectives are on to their scam, just awaiting the chance to pounce when money changes hands.
Herein lies the dilemma for viewers. Our sympathies may well be compromised. For all we know, the criminals have good intentions. Possibly motivated by faith, they see themselves as meeting a heartfelt need among infertile couples. On the other hand, what will they do with their ill-gotten gains? Dole them out to worthy causes? We are never really told, for the truth is rarely pure and never simple in this picture.
As the plot thickens, we realise how complex the lives of the various characters are. So-young’s back story, with its twists and turns, is a narrative all of its own, enabling us to understand her sense of detachment from her child. The detectives played by Bae Doona and Lee Joo-young could, with another director, be leading lights in a straightforward thriller in which full justice is the inevitable conclusion. Here, many a good deed is done for dubious reasons. The contradictory elements portrayed in our twisted natures are reminiscent of Graham Greene. There is a crack in everything, but that is how the light gets in.
Broker places its emphasis more on the weighing of merits than on the pardoning of offences, leaving it open for viewers to decide where the balance lies. For characters just as much sinned against as sinning, it is a matter of their enduring the heaviness of night in the hope that joy may break forth with the dawn. It is a fine sentiment, albeit in a film with an ambiguous ending. This will trouble some viewers with black-and-white ethical codes.
Broker skilfully parades humanity in nifty shades of grey. The problem is that Kore-eda draws it out for too long. There is insufficient plot and characterisation for its duration, so that the film finishes quite some time before it eventually stops.