Broker [subtitled]

Broker is a Korean film, a drama with modest elements of comedy—so a dramedy leaning drama, I suppose—about a motley crew of folks seeking to sell a baby in the adoption black market, surveilled by cops all the while.

I want to try to summarize the film as best I can, as much to try to get clearer on it myself as anything, since I found elements of it ambiguous or hard to follow, though the gist of what’s going on is clear enough. So needless to say there will be spoilers for any reader who hasn’t already seen the film.

Moon So-young (who uses an alias early in the film) is a young mother who abandons her baby Woo-sung at a church. It isn’t just a random, unexpected kind of thing, as the church has a special box set up outside to receive unwanted babies anonymously (which apparently is something of a phenomenon in South Korea currently, with some debate over whether providing a convenient outlet for mothers uncertain they can raise a child actually makes the problem worse by lessening the disincentive to bear such a baby in the first place). I don’t know that it was ever explained, but for some reason she lies the baby down on the ground in front of the box rather than putting it in the box. (Some kind of ambivalence over whether she wants to leave it at all?)

(By the way, what’s up with the crude and obvious naming of a young unwed mother character “So-young”? It reminds me of the Awkward Puppets episode when a suspicious woman shows up at a bank seeking to withdraw money from the account of her supposedly rich husband, whose name she alleges is Rich Husband.)

She is observed in the act by two female detectives who are staking out the church because they suspect that abandoned babies are being sold. After she leaves, they put the baby into the box, starting the process that they hope will enable them to nab the culprits.

Ha Sang-hyeon, who owns a nearby laundry, and young Dong-soo, who works at the church, are the ones brokering babies to people looking to adopt, and they do indeed choose Woo-sung as one to sell, hustling the baby out of the church and erasing any evidence he was ever left there.

Things become complicated when So-young returns the next day, whether to reclaim her baby because she changed her mind, to learn more about what will be done with the baby, or what I’m not sure. But the people at the church tell her they don’t know what she’s talking about, that while they have numerous babies and young children there who were abandoned, they have no baby of hers.

Seeing that something is amiss, upon leaving she starts to call the police. Sang-hyeon and Dong-soo, who have follower her, cut her off, telling her that everything is OK, they have her baby, and her baby is fine.

They explain that they find people who will be excellent parents for these abandoned babies, creating a win-win situation since the couple gets to adopt and the baby grows up in a loving home rather than the kind of orphanage most of these babies will be stuck at. They do what they do out of wholly humanitarian motives, they insist.

Under questioning from the cynical So-young they admit that, yeah, actually it’s win-win-win in the sense that they get paid for being the middlemen. But, they tell her, in this case if she lets them go ahead with a sale they will cut her in for half.

She’s pretty sure giving up her baby is the least bad of the options available to her, and she was already going to do that for free, so she goes along with the suggestion that she get paid for it. They all climb into Sang-hyeon’s junky laundry van to drive to the rendezvous point for a planned sale. The detectives follow closely on their heels, as they need an actual sale to take place with a transfer of money before they can swoop in and arrest the principles.

In time we get some of the back stories of these characters. One thing we learn is that, ironically, while all the talk about humanitarianism and benevolence seemed transparently insincere or delusional coming from baby brokers and a mother who would sell her own child, in fact these are all good-hearted people who really do act from at least somewhat benevolent motives.

Sang-hyeon had a wife and daughter and lost them, possibly in part due to alcoholism. He’s involved in this baby-selling scheme because he’s desperate for money, as he is behind on paying protection money to local mobsters and is on the verge of losing his business as a result.

Dong-soo was himself raised in an orphanage after being abandoned similarly to how Woo-sung was, and he still bears the scars of the experience. Early in the film they visit the orphanage where he was raised. He is very popular there, idolized by the children as a beloved elder brother figure. Which is nice, but at the same time it’s painful for him to be back there.

Shortly after they leave the orphanage, they realize they’ve picked up an unwanted additional participant in their road trip. Hae-jin, an 8 year old boy who is too old to any longer have a realistic chance of being adopted and knows it, has stowed away in the back of the van. They’re kind of stuck with him now, since, for one thing, he has overheard them talking and knows what they’re up to. But he’s a likable little dude (probably my favorite character in the movie) and they kind of welcome his presence regardless. So the motley crew of four (including the baby) becomes a motley crew of five.

So-young, it turns out, is a prostitute. She is not abandoning her baby solely out of the usual concerns about being financially unable to handle the burdens of being a young single mother, but also because she knows she is at risk of arrest and imprisonment at any time due to having just committed murder in a hotel room. Initially she claims she killed a john who tried to force her into sex acts she wasn’t willing to perform, but later she says it was actually Woo-sung’s father, who was angry about her having the baby in spite of his insistence that it be aborted and who was trying to take the baby from her. (To kill him? Is that the implication?)

The detectives find out about So-young being a suspect in a murder. They still want to let a sale happen so they can arrest everyone, but now they also want to be sure to keep tabs on So-young at all times so she can’t slip away.

There are a lot of characters and a lot going on to keep track of, and I haven’t even covered everything. At one point, Woo-sung’s father’s wife enters the picture, as she pays gangsters to hunt down So-young and bring her the baby. (To kill him? Because she believes she’s entitled to raise Woo-sung since he’s her husband’s child?) The gangsters are apparently the same ones shown extorting Sang-hyeon earlier in the film. (Is that a coincidence? Is there some further connection there?)

The bulk of the movie then consists of the protagonists meeting up with various parties looking to purchase the child for adoption, and perhaps more importantly gradually getting to know each other on the road, develop feelings for each other, and ultimately become sort of an oddball makeshift family (which is the warmest, best aspect of the film).

The potential buyers they encounter vary. Some want to haggle by insisting the baby isn’t worth the asking price (e.g., he has weak eyebrows, he looked cuter in the photos they sent, etc.). Some are middlemen pretending to be prospective parents, who want to resell the baby. Some are cops pretending to be prospective parents to entrap the sellers. Some are trying to get the baby for the father’s wife.

As I say, I was at times confused and not at all sure I was picking up on everything, including which characters knew what about each other and when they knew it. I could only sort of follow the ending. I especially wasn’t clear what happened with Sang-hyeon. Probably I’d need to watch it at least a second time to really follow this movie.

My feelings on the whole about Broker are that it was above average but didn’t blow me away. There were times it was a little slow and didn’t fully engage me, but for the most part I liked getting to know these characters, found I was able to empathize with them, and rooted for them to develop positive relationships with each other. There’s some gravity and some sadness to it, but for the most part it’s a sweet little film.

I’d put it well below the Korean film Parasite, a movie I liked a lot, but Broker is certainly worthwhile.