Perhaps more than any other contemporary director in Japan, Hirokazu Koreeda has persistently interrogated the concept of the modern family asking what exactly the word has come to mean and how it is or should be defined. In Nobody Knows he showed us a case of parental neglect as abandoned siblings attempted to get by on their own in the absence of maternal care, while the separated brothers of I Wish struggle to define the nature of their relationships in the wake of their parents’ divorce. In Like Father, Like Son, Koreeda asks whether it’s blood relation that defines a family tie or whether it is forged more by mutual affection and shared memories, and in festival hit Shoplifters, he showed us a family who were not related by blood but had found in each other a home and a place to belong.
Billed as a kind of companion piece, Broker (브로커) once again features a found family “brokered” by criminal activity but goes a step further, asking once again what the rights and responsibilities are when it comes parenthood and if the choice to abandon a child can ever be justified. Set in Korea where Christian morality has a greater influence, the film opens with a young woman leaving her infant child in front of a church yet abandoning him on the floor rather than placing him inside the “baby box” in the church’s wall. A policewoman staking out the church in the belief that someone is using the baby box to traffic children gently places the infant inside with what looks like maternal care but then we start to wonder, perhaps she only does so in order to see what happens when someone picks up him from the other side.
Indeed, the policewoman will later concede that perhaps she herself was the one who most wanted the baby, Woo-Sung, to be sold so that she could catch the traffickers redhanded. We might feel a degree of revulsion towards the idea that a baby could be exchanged for money, but then perhaps we don’t stop to wonder who might buy and for what purpose. Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a dry cleaner with gambling debts, and his partner Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) who himself grew up in an orphanage, later recount selling a baby to two gay men who would otherwise be unable to adopt in the still conservative country suggesting in part that it’s a repressive society that forces people into this morally questionable underground trade in human children. It’s also societal conservatism that necessitates the existence of something like the baby box in that often very young women who bear children but cannot keep them either out of shame or simple economic impossibility have few other options than to abandon their child in the hope that someone will take it in.
Detective Lee (Bae Doona) nevertheless brands these women as “irresponsible” and blames the baby box for tacitly encouraging their behaviour. An abandoned child himself, Dong-soo also struggles with his attitude towards the mother, So-young (Lee Ji-eun), who against all the odds does come back to reclaim her son after changing her mind. He and Sang-hyun justify their actions that they’re “saving” Woo-sung from being placed into the care system by finding him a loving home with parents who can give him a comfortable life. After taking to the road, the trio arrive at the orphanage where Dong-soo was raised which is less a home for him than a painful reminder of all he’ll never have and will never achieve as someone without a clear idea of a place to belong.
The man running the orphanage even concedes he’s not doing so well after the losing the subsidies for a few of the kids who have left, though few people adopt kids over six and the law makes it more difficult at eight which is a particular problem for football enthusiast Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo) who ends up climbing into Sang-hyun’s van and demanding they take him in. “Blood is thicker than water” the man sighs, explaining that kids are often sent back when it doesn’t work out or even end up suffering abuse despite the supposedly rigorous processes for vetting potential parents which causes some to simply buy a child on the black market instead.
Despite the image of Dong-soo and Sang-hyun as heartless child traffickers they nevertheless take good care of Woo-sung and are up to a point careful that they should give him to someone responsible, mindful of those who might want a baby for untoward purposes or are intent on selling him on. A visual motif of tangling threads from the cotton on Sang-hyun’s sewing machine to the rope that pulls the busted back door of the van closed hints at the various ways these five dispossessed people are slowly bound together, becoming an accidental family forged through a process of mutual understanding in which Dong-soo is able to re-evaluate his feelings towards his mother through bonding with So-young and realising that in abandoning her child she may only have been trying to protect him and give him the better life that she never had.
So-young tells Dong-soo that she sometimes has a dream in which the rain washes away her life until now, but on waking she realises it’s raining and nothing’s changed. He tells her perhaps all she needs is an umbrella that’s big enough for two, a metaphor for the protective quality of family he could perhaps have given her. Even she later concedes that had she met them earlier, none of this would have been necessary while Detective Lee’s more sympathetic partner (Baek Hyun-jin) likewise asks why they couldn’t have intervened earlier and done something to help this struggling young woman whose only problem was her aloneness before it came to this. What emerges is an unexpected compassion and the extension of an umbrella from an unexpected source in the acknowledgement that nothing’s ever quite as simple as it might seem. Koreeda leaves us with an outcome that is possibly as happy as it could be in an imperfect world, which might in itself be a little unrealistic but nevertheless in its own way hopeful in having reclaimed a notion of “family” brokered by selflessness and mutual compassion if not quite love for the orphans of an indifferent society.
Broker opens in UK & Irish cinemas on February 24th. For more information head to http://broker.film/
UK release trailer (English subtitles)