While Americans’ attention is consumed with the issue of abortion, halfway across the world, director Kore-eda Hirokazu (“Shoplifters”) focuses on the alternative for mothers who carry their pregnancies to term, but can’t raise the children on their own. A warm and unexpectedly nonjudgmental look at the Korean gray market for adoption, “Broker” was inspired by the idea of “baby hatches” — essentially, a donation station for unwanted infants — and follows the director’s natural curiosity through to its most humanistic conclusion, as audiences unexpectedly come to empathize with practically everyone involved in the buying and selling of a little bundle of joy.
What is Kore-eda, who is Japanese, doing making a film in South Korea, you might ask? It’s not his first time working abroad. Fortunately, “Broker” is less of a stretch than the Oscar- and Palme d’Or-winning director’s previous feature — the starry but stilted meta-movie “The Truth,” which took place in Paris — returning Kore-eda to the familiar theme of families, bound by blood or necessity, and the inexhaustible moral territory he finds to explore there. Plus, this project allowed him to work with “Parasite” cinematographer Hong Kyung Pyo and that film’s star, Song Kang Ho, whose good-natured persona makes it difficult to think too badly of the film’s eponymous human trafficker, Sang-hyun.
“Broker” opens with an anonymous mother abandoning her child at a church-operated baby box. A pair of female police detectives (Doona Bae and Lee Joo Young) happen to be watching the location when the drop-off happens, as they’ve already figured out that one of the church employees — Dong-soo (Gang Dong Won), himself an orphan — is stealing infants left without contact information and selling them to desperate parents.
It’s a victimless crime, as far as Dong-soo and Sang-hyun are concerned. In fact, they’ve actually managed to convince themselves that they’re the good guys, helping kids who might otherwise be stuck in the system find loving homes. (It’s explained that when a mom leaves a note saying she’ll be back to reclaim the kid, they can’t be adopted. But only one in 40 such moms ever return, sentencing the babies to life in an orphanage.)
Except that this infant’s mom does show up a day later, complicating the entire equation. But when she learns that baby brokers expect to collect 10 million won (about $8,000) for her son, So-young (Lee Ji Eun) decides the money is more interesting than getting baby Woo-sung back. Sang-hyun convinces her to tag along, since such transactions are easier when the biological mother is present — and so begins the road trip that will change all their lives, with the two detectives in tow.
At this point, the film may sound a lot like an earlier Palme d’Or winner, 2005’s “The Child,” in which a deadbeat boyfriend sells his girlfriend’s baby, then spends the rest of the film hustling to undo this bad decision. That film is a mini social realist masterpiece — the Dardenne brothers’ best — and unspools like a thriller, with the highest stakes imaginable: What audience doesn’t worry about the fate of a child, passed around like a hot potato between irresponsible parties? “Broker” is more of a melodrama, all but devoid of suspense. The film’s not at all shy about its own sentimentality (though subtle enough to get away with it), which is reinforced by composer Jung Jae Il’s rolling piano score.
Kore-eda is surprisingly generous toward his characters, nearly all of whom are breaking the law, but whose fundamental decency is brought out when dealing with others in need. It’s eventually revealed that So-young is a prostitute who murdered her baby’s gangster father, but even this rather extreme development is quickly forgiven, not only by Sang-hyun and Dong-soo (they take turns pretending to be her husband in various situations) but also by the cops, who offer her a chance to reduce her sentence.
As in “Shoplifters,” this small criminal clique instinctively reconfigures itself into a kind of ersatz family, completing the bonds each of them seems to be missing in their respective lives: So-young lacks a father figure and Dong-soo never knew his folks, while Sang-hyun has lost touch with his own daughter. It’s not entirely convincing that they would bond as deeply as they do (one suspects Kore-eda sees any group of three or more people as a family), and yet, dramatically speaking, this evolution in their dynamic makes the task of selling Woo-sung more complicated.
Somewhere along the way, a seven-year-old boy named Hae-jin escapes the orphanage and hitches a ride in their beat-up old van, giving all three the chance to behave like adoptive parents — basically, a trial run at their redemption. Going back at least as far as 2004’s “Nobody Knows” (in which a 12-year-old must raise his younger siblings after their mother disappears, Kore-eda has taken an interest in how unlikely candidates step up to the challenge of parenting. I suspect he’s the type who can’t visit an animal shelter without bringing home a puppy, seeing as how his characters need only spend a few days with a baby to want one of their own. For a different disposition, that would be time enough to swear them off entirely.
At several points, the topic of abortion surfaces, the implication being that killing a fetus is less cruel than leaving it in the wrong hands. One of the police detective’s first words in the film are, “Don’t have a baby if you’ll abandon it.” Kore-eda is clearly interested in mothers — those capable of surrendering a child as well as those so desperate to adopt — and yet, as the film unfolds, it’s the experience of these kids that matters most. How does one show a child cast away by its parents that it belongs in this world? With the words, “thank you for being born,” concludes Kore-eda, giving each of his characters a chance to hear that magnanimous mantra. It’s a lovely note on which to close “Broker,” which has somewhat implausibly expanded from a narrowly focused crime movie to a gentle group hug.