Heralded by performances and sincere empathy, Broker is a heartbreaker of the highest caliber, a triumph of love and lawlessness. Though a surface-level plot summary may make it seem janky and random, Kore-eda’s genuine and kind writing and directorial prowess strike a perfect balance of strange and beautiful. Each member of this found family is crafted as mirrors of each other and missing pieces. On the surface, a family full of brokers (essentially human traffickers), a murderer, a nearly newborn baby, and a child who jumped into the van is beyond strange. But in Broker, it’s pure magic.
Ha Sang-Hyeon (2022’s perennial on-screen father Song Kang-ho) runs a dry-cleaning business but is scrounging for money and any attempt at family, estranged from his daughter and ex-wife, desperate and lonely. He works with Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won), a volunteer at a local church’s baby box, taking care of raising and finding families for abandoned children.
The family excuses their human trafficking as good work by explaining that mothers who leave notes with promises of return close off paths of adoption and never end up returning. Moon So-young (K-pop star Lee Ji-eun) is the exception to this rule. After leaving her son, Woo-Sung (Park Ji-yong) outside of the baby box, she returns the next day to find that he is not with the baby box program, but instead, Sang-Hyeon and Dong-soo have plans to sell the infant. Knowing she does not have the means to raise the child, and after finding out the amount of money she can acquire, she joins the two in finding a family for baby Woo-Sung.
During the trip, they visit Dong-soo’s orphanage, where his biological mother abandoned him, one who, like Moon So-young, promised she would return. As the group continue on their journey, Hae-jin, a child at the orphanage, hides in the van and manages to sneak his way into the haphazardly found family.
Similar to his 2018 film Shoplifters, Kore-eda balanced moral ambiguity with genuine familial love. Kore-eda, in his filmography, often depicts an upending of our common understanding of morality supported by loving familial dynamics – regardless of whether these families are related by blood, or in what circumstances, however unlawful, they found each other. In Kore-eda’s narratives, what is unlawful is at the same time sweet and easy to root for. The roots of tragedy are buried right at the beginning of the Broker family’s formation. Their predicament makes it clear there is no simple, happy ending. It is a symptom of the system, one that failed and broke each person individually, that also pushed and mended them together.
What appears to be water from the outside, may still be thick as blood. Their journey allows them to find joy in the mundane, where secrets spill gleefully with a window open during the car wash, water washing away barriers, and the past like rainfall after a drought. They laugh at close calls with police officers, making up fables of family trips to steer attention away from their strange predicament. After enjoying meals together like a traditional family does, each member splinters off into their own personal conflicts – some concerning murder or familial estrangement, continuing their pattern of unlawfulness – revealing the pre-existing divisions that seek to break their newly-formed bonds apart. Kore-eda is still realistic, the failures of social services and the desperation forced upon these people under capitalism cannot be remedied by their love. The system still works to separate them.
Despite their unethical beginnings, the family’s journey shows itself to be admirable in its lawlessness, and the police officers tracking them down behave more criminal and harmful than the actual lawbreakers. Throughout the twisted family road trip, they begin to understand each other and heal their pasts through the newfound relationships with each other. Broker is far more than a found family story here, it meditates on how familial structures evolve and differ throughout one’s life, the bounds of forgiveness, and the bonds that form between people in the most criminal of situations.
Kore-eda’s found family tales don’t lend to a fully-mended happily ever after, Broker is sweet but not naïve. The result does not serve as a tearjerker, instead of breaking hearts it works to reshape them. Kore-eda asks questions of us, and forces us to rethink not just traditional familial structures and the efficacy of social services and law enforcement, but how our relationships with one another are affected by our pasts, how our personhood is defined by the gaps we find with others, and how we work to fill them.