This review originally ran as part of Paste’s Busan International Film Festival 2022 coverage.
“Don’t have a baby if you’ll abandon it.” This is the first line in Broker, uttered by Bae Doona’s single-minded police detective Soo-jin as So-young (Lee Ji-eun, aka IU) leaves her swaddled baby, Woo-sung, outside a church on a rainy Busan night. The following 129 minutes of the film work to contextualize and complicate that statement. To do so, celebrated Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda uses an ensemble of complex, delicately drawn characters with differing opinions, some strong and some weak, about So-young’s choice. The result is a treatise on the families we make and the systems that get in the way of us caring for one another—and one of the best films of the year.
Kore-eda’s talent for delicate character work and rich, contemplative pacing is on full display in Broker. Everyone has an opinion about So-young’s choice to leave her child at a baby box, a designated and safe drop-off spot for parents who are unable to care for their children, and Kore-eda unspools them over the course of the film. For Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), a volunteer at the church who uses his role to steal babies for the adoption black market with friend Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), the act of baby abandonment is deeply personal and deeply wrong. Dong-soo was left at an orphanage as a child, and initially uses So-young as an excuse to release decades of unexpressed anger. It doesn’t matter to Dong-soo that So-young might have a good reason, or that she comes back. When she shows back up at the church the next day, looking for Woo-sung, Dong-soo has little sympathy for her plight. He and Sang-hyeon may be forced to bring So-young into their illegal adoption dealings so she doesn’t go to the police, but, to Dong-soo, So-young has committed an unforgivable crime in ever leaving Woo-sung in the first place.
Detective Soo-jin is similarly judgmental, and far less sympathetic towards So-young than to the two men who regularly sell babies—presumably commentary on the harsher ways society treats women who “fail” at the all-important role of mother compared to basically any man. When So-young challenges Dong-soo on this point, noting that no one seems to be angry at the fathers of these abandoned children, Dong-soo quickly deflects. And when Soo-jin’s younger partner, Detective Lee (Lee Joo-young), wonders aloud if society shouldn’t be working to find a way to help people like So-young before they have to abandon their children—a very good question—Detective Soo-jin is similarly dismissive. Both Dong-soo and Soo-jin have built parts of their core identities on the determination that women who give up their children are bad, and they are not easily swayed from those firmly-held beliefs. But what is a character-driven film without the possibility for change?
While some of these characters are deeply judgmental of one another, Broker itself treats each of its ensemble members with immense empathy. This is perhaps most explicitly depicted through Sang-hyeon, played by the professionally affable Song. When Dong-soo is cruel to So-young, he explains that his anger is really not about So-young at all. And when he sees how much So-young cares about Woo-sung, he reminds her that she is not alone. When Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo), a soccer-obsessed eight-year-old growing up at Dong-soo’s orphanage, stows away on their baby-selling trip, Sang-hyeon lets him name the van and doesn’t get mad when he opens the window in the middle of an automatic car wash. And, while they all (including Hae-jin!) care for Woo-sung, Sang-hyeon takes the lead, playing, cuddling and bathing the baby with care and attention, and seemingly happy to do so. We’re not intended to see his caring as a means to an end, but rather as an act that has value in and of itself—a rare, immensely important characterization for male characters.
And what of So-young, the character at the heart of this story? In a flatter film—in a cinematic world that so often does so poorly by female characters—she would be nothing more than a plot device. In Kore-eda’s, she has dimensions and narrative power. Other characters spend the film judging her, but she is the one most failed by society. “If I were alone, I would be helpless,” she tells Sang-hyeon. They’re at the hospital for Woo-sung, who gets sick with a bad cold—the implication being she was alone before. Abandoning Woo-sung was an act of love and care. She has every right to be furious that the systems have failed her so deeply that she gives up a child she wants. So-young has every right to be furious at the world, and maybe she is, but she is also open to caring and being cared for, when the opportunity finally, gloriously comes.
I understand why the Korean Film Council selected Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave to represent South Korea at the 2023 Academy Awards, even if I think Broker is the more interesting film. Visually, Decision to Leave is much flashier, while Broker’s formal complexity is intentionally subtle. Long, unbroken shots and natural lighting—in both day and night, rain and shine (Hong Kyung-pyo continues to demonstrate his incredible versatility as a cinematographer)—are used to give us a sense of a lived-in world we’ve been granted temporary access to rather than one constructed. In service of the film’s central theme, the mise-en-scene is deeply relational; characters are often framed in shot together, sometimes decentered to better emphasize setting. Kore-eda’s framing of So-young is particularly striking: Our view of her is often slightly obscured—by car seats, her hair or hood, or (in one emotionally climactic scene) by Dong-soo’s hand. It offers greater cinematic protection to this character in particular, who doesn’t get the safety and support she deserves in the world of the film.
In a different world, Sang-hyeon, Dong-soo, So-young, Hae-jin and Woo-sung could be a family, but they keep coming up against systems and expectations that remind them why they can’t keep each other. While Broker ultimately (mostly) reaffirms the power of the traditional nuclear family unit, it keeps space for more creative and flexible systems of caring—and is a more successful story for it. Every baby deserves to be loved and taken care of, but so does every adult. Broker does an impressive job of articulating how these two truths are inextricably intertwined.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Writer: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Gang Dong-won, Bae Doona, Lee Ji-eun, Lee Joo-young
Release Date: December 26, 2022
Kayti Burt is a culture critic with bylines at TIME, MTV News, Refinery29, and Den of Geek. For more pop culture analysis, including K-culture context, you can follow her @kaytiburt and visit her website.