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Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu (South Korea). Year of Release: 2022

A rainy night, a church. A woman comes with a bundle in her arms – a baby. After attaching a note saying “I’ll be back”, she leaves the baby outside a lit box inside the church. To fully understand what’s going on here, you, like me, need to understand the concept of a “baby box” – a public area where women can anonymously leave babies which they feel unable to look after themselves. The babies are then put up for adoption.

The woman – So-young – doesn’t sign her note. Outside the church, two women in a car – obviously cops – look on attentively. Inside, one of the church workers, Dong-soo, takes the baby and erases any video footage of So-young being there. Dong-soo, together with this partner, laundry owner Sang-hyeon, is a Broker – someone who would be described in the tabloid press as a baby trafficker, but really a low-level petty criminal doing his best to make by.

Dong-soo and Sang-hyeon work on the fact that only one in 40 mothers actually returns to collect their abandoned baby. They offer the baby to infertile parents, and make a small profit, most of which goes to the bigger criminals preying on them. When So-young does return, they tell her that they are just cupids, trying to find a home for babies who – according to Korean law – would be sentenced to an orphanage if the parent does not leave their name.

So-young really doesn’t want to keep her baby – indeed, she spends most of the film trying to avoid social interaction with it, in case she develops bonds which would make it more difficult to give it up. Her situation is also desperate enough for her to join the baby selling venture as long as she gets a big enough cut. Somehow, a 7-year old runaway from the local orphanage joins the party, and they’re now 2 men, 1 woman and a baby setting out on a road trip through South Korea.

As the policewomen reappear, a subplot emerges which gives So-young a bit of backstory. Turns out that she worked as a prostitute and killed the father of her baby. The cops are offering her a reduced sentence if she allows them to follow her and catch the “baby traffickers” in the act. While So-young is developing some sort of familial relationship with the others, she is simultaneously meeting the cops in their car and allowing them to put a GPS device in her new family’s rickety van.

At one stage, someone in the van says something like “this vehicle is full of liars”, and as the past histories of the various characters emerge, we realise that no-one is being fully honest. Sang-hyeon is trying to repair a broken relationship with his daughter after the implosion of his marriage, Dong-soo is still coming to terms with his abandonment as a kid, and So-young is doing her best to avoid any maternal feelings for the baby, or the 7-year old, which have been thrust into her life.

This has the danger of very easily moving into maudlin sentimentality, and to be honest, every so often it does falter in this direction. What saves it, I think, is that this is a story about real people desperately trying to keep their heads above water. Some reviews have haughtily sniffed that people traffickers are horrible people, but that’s not the point here. These are the foot soldiers, not the kingpins. None of the people in this film is profiting massively from human misery.

Also interesting is the film’s attitude to Choice. It is incontrovertible true that So-young is a deeply sympathetic character who holds deeply reactionary views in her head. She asks whether it is not better for unborn children to be taken to term and then sent for adoption rather than being killed in the womb. Now let us be clear that this is a conservative view that confuses a collection of cells for a human being. So-young should not have to be confronted with this dilemma.

One way in which some critics have tried to square this particular circle is to cite cultural differences. Abortion in South Korea was not decriminalised until 2021. Of course someone like So-young would have these ideas. I think that this response explains but it does not excuse. In effect it fudges the discussion about the right of women to control their own bodies by saying that this particular troubled woman agrees with the bigots on this one.

This would be a big issue if the main point of a film were to conform to an endless series of checkboxes which confirm that it is ideologically pure. The fact is that Broker does depict one way in which abortion and Choice are currently being discussed in modern South Korea. At best one may criticize it for not showing a more radical discussion, but this does not delegitimize it as a film which is mainly concerned with the disenfranchisement of those at the bottom of society.

In a just world, women like So-young should not be expected to give up their babies for economic or social reasons, whatever their opinions on choice. But, to misquote someone who was more eloquent on things like this than I ever will be, we are free to make history, but not under conditions of our own choosing. The fact that So-young is expected to bring her unwanted baby to term and then to give it away because she can’t afford it, is the real scandal here.

Many reviewers see Broker as continuing the social message of Hirokazu’s previous films like Shoplifters. Now, I just couldn’t get into Shoplifters, and while I accept that I may just have come across it on a bad day, Broker was just able to offer me much more. Every so often, things get a little too sentimental for my liking, and there are a little too many shots of cute kids, but for all this, it’s a decent story of real people who are fundamentally decent. Which is a decent start.

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