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‘Broker’ asks, ‘What makes a family?’

“Broker” (“Beurokeo”) (2022). Cast: Song Kang-ho, Dong-won Gang, Doona Bae, Ji-eun Lee, Lee Joo-young, Seung-soo Im, Ryu Kyong-soo, Ji-yong Park. Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda. Screenplay: Hirokazu Kore-eda. Web site. Trailer.

When we think of the concept of “family,” we most often consider it as something made up of those with whom we’re developed our closest bonds. This has traditionally been built on a basis of biology, but, over time, we’ve seen that change. And, in some cases, it’s become something that may arise as a result of unexpected circumstances, sometimes exceedingly unfathomable ones. So it is in the delightfully new quirky Korean comedy-drama, “Broker” (“Beurokeo”).

Baby Woo-sung (Ji-yong Park) is about to embark on a grand adventure, even if he is unaware of it and doesn’t understand or appreciate the impact it will have on him and his future. Late one rainy night, the boy’s mother, So-young (Ji-eun Lee), approaches a church that’s been equipped with a “baby box,” a secure depository where the parents of infants who are unable or unwilling to care for their young can safely leave their children in the hands of those who will nurture and protect them until they’re ready to be put up for adoption. But, just as she’s about to hand over her son, So-young hesitates, placing Woo-sung on the ground just outside the box, exposed to the elements, at which point she simply walks away. And, ironically, she leaves him with a note pinned to his clothes saying not to worry, that she’ll be back for him. Clearly the young mother is torn about what to do.

Even more interesting is the fact that the incident is not without witnesses. As the events play out, two officials from Child Protective Services watch from their stakeout as the youngster is abandoned. The chief of this operation, Sgt. Soo-jin (Doona Bae), looks on in quietly angry dismay, wondering how anyone could possibly desert a child in such a cold, callous way by not even following through on the proper transfer procedure. Soo-jin and her associate, Det. Lee (Lee Joo-young), approach the baby box, lifting the child off the ground and placing him inside the secure chamber, out of the elements. They take comfort in having done right by Woo-sung, though Soo-jin looks on with some remorse: As a married but childless woman, she exhibits a sadness at not being able to step up and do more for the infant – and for herself.

However, even though the child was safely placed in the baby box, things aren’t exactly on the up and up, part of the reason why the CPS officers have been surveilling the site. It’s believed that the box has been used as a source of obtaining children for an illegal baby brokerage operation run by Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho), the owner of a dry cleaning/tailor shop, and his sidekick, Dong-soo (Dong-won Gang), a former athlete who was himself abandoned and spent much of his childhood in an orphanage. But, if Soo-jin and Det. Lee hope to obtain a conviction against the brokers, they must catch the perpetrators in the act of selling a child, something they hope to be able to do if Woo-sung were to go on the market.

The situation is further complicated by additional extenuating circumstances. When So-young has a change of heart about her decision, she goes in search of the child, an undertaking that eventually leads her to the brokers. She attempts to get her son back, but the brokers tell her that she relinquished that option when the child was placed into the baby box, something she denies doing. That revelation gets their attention, raising their suspicions that there’s something fishy going on. They decide that, unless So-young can afford to buy back the infant, they need to make a sale as soon as possible to divest themselves of the evidence. They even agree to give the mother a cut of the sale price in exchange for her assistance in helping to expedite the transaction.

Clandestinely disposing of the evidence is not the only consideration, either. Sang-hyeon owes money to a local mobster, Shin Tae-ho (Ryu Kyong-soo), who’s putting the squeeze on him, and he needs to generate cash quickly if he hopes to retain his limbs. What’s more, questions begin to surface about So-young’s indecisiveness regarding the handling of Woo-sung’s disposition. It becomes apparent that there’s more going on with her than ambivalence about her resolve to remain the child’s caregiver. Motherly love, it seems, has taken a back seat in this scenario.

When Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo learn of a potential buyer for the baby – an out-of-town married couple – they hit the road with So-young and the child to complete the deal, with the CPS officers in silent pursuit. However, when the prospective parents renege on the price, the deal is off, and the trio of sellers is off to find a new purchaser. Thus begins the extended road trip of this unlikely band of black market entrepreneurs, a journey filled with twists, turns and a surprising amount of humor. But, as they experience an array of dramatic and comedic adventures amongst themselves, with authorities and the mob hot on their tail, with an assortment of new would-be buyers waiting in the wings, and with an unexpected tag-along guest, Hae-jin (Seung-soo Im), a young stowaway from an orphanage, they unwittingly form a de facto family of sorts, one that may not be so easily disbanded, even if a suitable home is found for the baby. Of course, with so much pressure being placed on them (including now from police investigating their possible connection to a grisly murder), they find it increasingly difficult just to stay ahead of everyone who’s after them. Indeed, who would have thought a baby could create so much havoc?

Korean black market baby brokers Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho, right) and Dong-soo (Dong-won Gang, center) await would-be buyers for Woo-sung (Ji-yong Park, in Sang-hyeon’s arms), the child of So-young (Ji-eun Lee, left), in director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new comedy-drama, “Broker” (“Beurokeo”), now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Neon.

But, then, the baby creates more than havoc in this story. He essentially helps to create an alternative family, one made up of individuals who have all been on their own for long stretches of time, quietly searching for more for themselves, even if they haven’t consciously recognized that desire until they suddenly found themselves in the midst of it. Woo-sung may have provided the focal point behind this intriguing manifestation, but it’s a materialization that has been brought about by the thoughts, beliefs and intents of his newfound kindreds. This is the essence of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we bring about the reality we experience through the power of these intangible resources. Woo-sung’s new “relatives” may not be aware of this school of thought or even the unrecognized, unrealized intentions lurking in their consciousness. Yet it’s quite something to see how their long-submerged wishes find a way to surface and materialize as they do here.

Granted, that outcome may not have been what these characters thought they had in mind when this adventure began. But its creation shows just how powerful our beliefs are, how they can push through to the surface, even when prevailing conditions – such as the pursuit by authorities and the mob, as well as other considerations – might well suggest otherwise. Indeed, life’s “surprises” can be truly pleasant, especially when “unexpected.”

Of course, no one here could likely pull this off individually, but the pooled belief resources of all involved can work wonders when the collaborators operate collectively. Woo-sung has a group of caregivers dutifully looking after him, even if their intentions toward him are initially different from how circumstances eventually pan out. Sang-hyeon, who has long been on his own, has a group of supportive kindreds around him. Dong-soo, who grew up without a family in the orphanage, now has what he had always been looking for, a sentiment now echoed in Hae-jin’s experience. And So-young, who has been on the fence about family and motherhood, finds that the idea may be more agreeable with her than she thought. Even the intrepid pursuers in this scenario may end up pleasantly surprised with what they reap.

What’s most important to recognize here is the concept of “family” and what constitutes it. We have long thought of it as a notion governed by blood, but, in recent years, we’ve seen that change to one shaped more by relationships, regardless of whether biology is involved, a point once again reinforced here. This is not to suggest that peddling in black market babies is a recommended way to bring that about. However, the circumstances in this story illustrate that even the seemingly unlikeliest of situations can lead to what we desire, including the formation of a family. This is a theme that’s become prevalent of late in such films as “The Inspection.” It’s also a subject that director Hirokazu Kore-eda has explored in several of his previous films, such as “Shoplifters” (“Manbiki Kazoku”) (2018) and, to a lesser extent, “The Truth” (“La verité”) (2019), both of which involved stories where individuals from disparate (i.e., largely nonbiological) backgrounds were drawn together into familial units through unconventional (i.e., sometimes unsavory) circumstances. Indeed, we often never know what we’re going to get until events begin to unfold – and frequently in surprisingly amenable ways.

When we look to get the best out of life for ourselves, we often need to “broker” a deal to fulfill that goal. Which is precisely what an unlikely group of seemingly unrelated happiness seekers do in this heartbreaking and heartwarming new comedy-drama. While the film initially hooks viewers with a scenario involving a literal interpretation of the word that comprises its title, it skillfully moves on to explore how we attempt to get what we want out of life by brokering circumstances to our advantage, in this case the realization of long-held quietly cherished desires. In taking this unexpected turn, the story shows how such endeavors can have both their dubious qualities, as well as heartfelt, sincere intentions (their inherently questionable actions and manipulative practices notwithstanding). The filmmaker accomplishes this by deftly weaving gentle humor, genuine emotion and a moving soundtrack into the narrative, taking the edge off the primary troubling story thread and adding a sense of warmth that tenderly humanizes the picture’s overall direction. Thus what may be perceived beforehand as a dark and sinister tale tactfully guides audiences down a different (and heart-tugging) path. This is perhaps one of Kore-eda’s best and most personal offerings, featuring a well-crafted script and what is arguably a cast of Korean all-stars who deliver touching and delightful performances. There are admittedly a few points in the picture where the pacing sags a bit, but they’re more than made up for by its many strengths, making for a surprisingly satisfying watch, one of the most enjoyable releases of 2022, one that earned the picture the Cannes Film Festival’s best actor award for Song Kang-ho, the event’s Ecumenical Jury Prize and a nomination for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honor. The film is currently playing theatrically.

It’s funny how life sometimes starts us down one path but then takes us in a completely different direction. We may be surprised by where we end up, but it might also be more satisfying than where we initially thought we were headed. The question, of course, is what do we do when we arrive at that unexpected destination? Do we struggle to get back on our original path? Or do we embrace what we’ve wrought for what it is? If we’ve brokered what we really want, why question it? That can be particularly crucial when it comes to building the family we want, at last achieving the sense of belonging we’ve always sought. Indeed, what more could we ask for out of a family?

Copyright © 2023, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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