There and Back Again

Broker (2022)


“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

—Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach

Imiss road trips. Long before we were married, my wife and I took road trips all the time. A year after we started dating, we drove up the West Coast on an epic adventure. We survived a terrifying forest fire in Northern California, tried our luck at a few casinos in Oregon, and made a pilgrimage to Bruce and Brandon Lee’s graves in Seattle. By the time we made the long journey back to Santa Cruz, our relationship had irrevocably changed, and so had we. Some couples don’t survive the experience. When the road trip ends, so does the relationship. But not us. We didn’t go our separate ways. We stayed the course and never looked back—and we’ve been good traveling companions ever since.

A few years later, while living in Michigan, we would still take the odd road trip every so often. When the stress of school or work got to be too much for us to bear, the very idea of a road trip provided a kind of solace. At a moment’s notice, we knew we could pack up the car and just drive

I guess that’s why road movies are so fun to watch. If you can’t travel, at least you can do it vicariously. Sometimes, the characters are on the run due to some crime or misunderstanding. Other times, they’re searching for something—a person, a place, a thing, an idea. They’re so lost that any noun will do. 

Acclaimed Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda touches on a few of these genre conventions in Broker (2022), his first real attempt at a road movie. Featuring an all-Korean cast and set in a variety of locations across South Korea, the film is a continuation of the director’s cinematic “departure” from Japan, which began with his previous Paris-set film The Truth (2019), starring Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, and Ethan Hawke. But even if Kore-eda wanted to put Japan in the rearview once more with Broker, it’s clear that he didn’t leave behind any of his pet themes. 

Nearly all of Kore-eda’s films are about family, whether by blood, by choice, or by circumstance. Broker is no different. In fact, it bears more than a passing resemblance to Shoplifters, his 2018 film that won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. As Kore-eda himself told the Hollywood Reporter, “I developed the plot for Shoplifters and Broker at the same time, and I view the two films as siblings.” Upon closer inspection, the familial resemblance is uncanny.

For reference, Shoplifters focuses on a close-knit Tokyo family living in squalor. To make ends meet, they work menial jobs, cash a monthly retirement check, and steal food and merchandise from local businesses. The plot thickens when Kore-eda reveals a startling truth: there is no biological or legal relationship among anyone in this purported family. Instead, the bonds they share are predicated on survival. In the end, the cops get involved, and the full extent of the family’s crimes are revealed to the public. Without context, their heartwarming if unconventional lives can be boiled down to a sensationalistic headline, the kind that would make the average person shake their head in disgust.

While Broker tackles similar characters and situations, the film plays out like Shoplifters in reverse. Unlike Kore-eda’s earlier film, the police are involved in Broker from the very first scene, framing our initial impressions of the protagonists in a wholly negative way. In addition, the audience is fully aware that these characters—aside from a mother and her newborn—are not related by blood or by marriage. But whereas Shoplifters is a fairly stationary film, charting one family’s experiences in and around their cramped Tokyo home, Broker is a story of people on the move.  

The Journey is the Destination

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is labor.” —Robert Louis Stevenson, “El Dorado” (1878)

As with most road movies, Broker is about destinations that are not purely geographical but also emotional. With each stop on the map, the viewer’s preconceived notions are stripped away, informing a new understanding of the characters at the same time as they form new understandings of themselves.

The film opens in the pouring rain, with two undercover cops staking out a church in Busan. From their car, Su-jin (Bae Doona) and her partner Lee (Lee Joo-young) watch a woman leave her infant son outside a baby box, a place where mothers can safely and anonymously surrender their unwanted newborns for adoption. Since the practice is legal in South Korea, the undercover operation is intended not for the mother but for the men inside the church, Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho) and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won). The duo operates an illegal side hustle: selling unwanted babies on the black market.  

Unexpectedly, the mother, So-young (Lee Ji-eun), comes back the next day to reclaim her child, Woo-sung (Park Ji-yong). Naturally, there’s no record of him. Before she can call the police, the men try to cut her in on the deal, with Sang-hyun explaining that her decision to leave a note sealed the baby’s fate:

If a note says, “I’ll come back,” he’s taken off the adoption list. 100% chance he goes to the orphanage. You know what that means? I’m sure you wrote that with loving intention, but it closes off all future paths for him to be rescued from that kind of dark future. Rather than grow up in an orphanage, much better to be in the care of a loving family.

Although skeptical, So-young nevertheless forms an uneasy alliance with the two men, embarking on a road trip across South Korea to find the child a suitable home—and make a little money in the process.

From the very first line, the audience’s perception of these characters is colored by the lead detective’s disdain for everyone involved, starting with So-young. “Don’t have a baby if you’ll abandon it,” Su-jin remarks, immediately framing the young woman as a selfish and irresponsible parent. Similarly, the police refer to Sang-hyun and Dong-soo as human traffickers, a label that makes the two men sound more like villains in a Liam Neeson action flick than suitable protagonists for a road movie. In the eyes of Su-jin, the law, and perhaps even the audience, these three characters seem like the worst of the worst.

As previously mentioned, road movies can generally be divided into two categories—films where the protagonists are chasing after something, and films where they are being chased. Broker is both types of movies, with the caveat that the trio of outcasts we’re following aren’t aware they’re being chased at all, at least not at first. 

Their road journey begins, appropriately enough, on Children’s Day (May 5th) during Family Month in South Korea, and involves three major destinations: Yeongdeok, Uljin, and Seoul. By the end of the trip, all the principal characters have been changed by their experience on the road together. Whatever their initial motives might have been, each has come to want what’s best for Woo-sung’s future. But to arrive at this point was a difficult journey for criminal and cop alike.

For example, when we first meet Sang-hyun, he’s dressed in religious robes, suggesting that he is a fallen man of the cloth, reminiscent of actor Song Kang-ho’s earlier role as a vampiric priest in Park Chan-wook’s Thirst (2009). His reasons for wearing the getup aren’t explained, but when the church’s actual pastor shows up dressed in the same robes the next day, one can assume that Sang-hyun wore it either as a disguise or as a joke. While he may not be a “Father” in a religious sense, Sang-hyun radiates an unmistakably warm, paternal air. Although now a single ex-con operating a modest laundry business, Sang-hyun once had a family, and his ex-wife and young daughter live together in Seoul. But while the money he would make from Woo-sung’s sale might help pay off his gambling debts or even buy his way back into his daughter’s life, at story’s end, Sang-hyun is so transformed by the journey that he chooses a much different road from the one he set out on.

In comparison to his partner in crime, Dong-soo’s journey has less to do with a crisis of conscience and everything to do with his unresolved abandonment issues. From the very beginning, his intentions are clear: he wants children to grow up in a family, not in an orphanage. But his motives are not purely altruistic; they’re also intensely personal. While visiting an orphanage, his undisguised hostility toward So-young boils over, which results in an explanation from Sang-hyun:

Look out by the playground. See that old gate? That’s where he was abandoned. With a note that said, “I’ll come back for you.” That’s why he’s so touchy. Try to understand. 

Considering his past, Dong-soo’s fury at So-young is likely misdirected anger meant for his birth mother. And yet, it’s also implied that Dong-soo’s regular visits to the orphanage have less to do with seeing the children who live there, and everything to do with checking whether his mother finally came looking for him. In the end, his quest to find suitable parents for Woo-sung leads to a surprising measure of closure for the first and greatest wound of his life—his own abandonment.

Like her male traveling companions, So-young is not at all what she seems. She’s a former teenage runaway-turned-sex worker, and the prime suspect in the death of Woo-sung’s father. With two sets of cops and the dead gangster’s wife (Choi Hee-jin) hot on her trail, So-young finds herself between a proverbial rock and a hard place. When it comes to her true motives, everything goes back to why she abandoned Woo-sung in the first place. Did she want a better life for him? Was he dead weight slowing her down? Did she always intend to retrieve him at some later date? Even she isn’t sure. However, by journey’s end, So-young knows exactly what she must do.

The protagonists aren’t the only ones that change over the course of the film. The two plainclothes cops are an exercise in opposites: Su-jin is relentless and stoic, while her partner, Lee, serves as a more compassionate, skeptical foil. She operates like a reverse Dr. Watson to Su-jin’s Sherlock Holmes, pointing out the holes in her superior’s deductions and the questionable legality of their actions, as in an early stakeout scene where they eat instant noodles: 

LEE: Sarge, last time you told the chief the church was in on this child trafficking case.

SU-JIN: And it’s true. The younger one is an employee there.

LEE: Part-time.

SU-JIN: He’s an employee. Even if it’s a temp job.

LEE: Still, for supposedly professional brokers, their actions seem pretty improvised.

SU-JIN: You put lukewarm water in this. Didn’t you? 

LEE: It’s because you didn’t wait three minutes.

SU-JIN: If you take money, you’re a professional broker, no?

LEE: Technically, but calling it a deep organization seems a bit overstated.

SU-JIN: You hate when that Criminal Affairs guy calls you “the kid,” right?

In this scene, Detective Lee deconstructs her partner’s assertion that the brokers are part of a vast criminal enterprise. Why is it important that the case sounds bigger and more sinister than it actually is? Su-jin’s non sequitur about a colleague in Criminal Affairs serves as an explanation of sorts. Although left unstated, these two characters are women in a predominantly male profession, so if they arrest their quarry on trumped-up charges and get a conviction, it might just result in the kind of respect and accolades they desire from their peers. However, the seemingly throwaway complaint about the instant noodles is just as revealing: Su-jin is too hasty in her actions. Both her noodles and her judgment of the situation are woefully undercooked. 

Later, when Lee asks why her partner is so unsympathetic to So-young’s situation, Su-jin responds, “Can you understand a woman who throws away her baby? I can’t.” Like many of her responses, it’s an answer that doesn’t reveal much. Early in the film, it’s established that Su-jin has a nice stay-at-home writer boyfriend (Lee Moo-saeng), who prepares special meals and even brings her a fresh change of clothes for stakeouts. Lee remarks, “If you ever have a baby, he’ll be home writing so he can care for it.” The scene cuts away from Su-jin before we see the full extent of her reaction. Does she want children herself? Can she have children? Could there be issues with infertility, with a miscarriage, or with an abortion earlier in life? There is no explanation; it’s left to the audience to speculate about why she’s so cold-hearted toward So-young. Near the end of the film, however, both cops come to reevaluate their relentless quest, realizing that the title of “broker” falls squarely on them.

Pit Stops, Detours, and Dead Ends

“Remember, no matter where you go, there you are.” —Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

Sometimes, the best parts of a road trip are the stops you make along the way. Broker has no shortage of them, as the protagonists make five unplanned ones on their circuitous journey from Busan to Seoul. An orphanage, a traffic stop, a car wash, a hospital, a theme park—each serves as a crucial moment of pause that has both a singular and cumulative significance to the characters.

The first occurs when the trio makes a pit stop at a nearby orphanage. Upon their arrival, Dong-soo is treated to a hero’s welcome. His childhood attempts to run away from the orphanage are the stuff of legend among the current orphans, and he still holds the record for eluding capture for the longest time and farthest distance. Of course, time and again, he was brought back, and only now as an adult is free to come and go as he pleases. Still, he cannot help but see that more of his fellow orphans are returning to the orphanage as adults for work. This extended interlude establishes the orphanage as a kind of dead end or limbo, a place of no escape unless a child gets adopted or ages out. As the orphanage director (Song Sae-byeok) and his wife (Kim Sun-young) lament, even those who get adopted can face abuse or neglect from their adoptive parents, especially when a biological child is conceived. As a result, some end up right back in the orphanage. This is the fate that will befall Woo-sung if they do not find the right parents, making the stakes of the journey clear to both the characters and the viewer.

At the orphanage, the group meets Hae-jin (Im Seung-soo), the fifth member of the traveling party who comes along as a stowaway. He’s already eight years old, and the orphanage director theorizes that most orphans are adopted by age six, so it’s unlikely that Hae-jin will ever find parents and “he must know it, too.” After his surprise discovery in the van, Hae-jin soon proves his worth to the group when a cop pulls them over for a routine traffic stop, the second unplanned blip in the journey. While the adults scramble to come up with a cover story, Hae-jin improvises beautifully, telling the policeman that they’re going “to Lotte World to ride the Ferris wheel!” Here, Hae-jin’s introduction changes the preexisting dynamic of the group. His quick-witted lie ends up being a comical, bonding moment for the crew, as Sang-hyun and Dong-soo follow his lead in fooling the policeman. Here, Hae-jin’s presence makes an immediate impact not just on a practical level but on an emotional one: the scene ends with the first real instance of camaraderie among the adult characters, as their cover story is slowly becoming real. 

The notion of family evolves further during the group’s third unplanned stop, a trip to an automatic car wash. As they enter the conveyor, Sang-hyun warns Hae-jin not to wind his window down, but at the last second, the boy cheekily disobeys, causing everyone to get soaked. Considering that the adult passengers have just met Hae-jin, one might expect a furious response, but by the time they come out the other side, everyone in the van is laughing. It’s a tender, fleeting moment, one that further solidifies the emerging familial bonds among the travelers. It is also a callback to an earlier scene at the orphanage, when So-young mentions a recurring dream to Dong-soo:

I have this dream sometimes. It’s raining. The rain washes away everything I was up to yesterday. But when I open my eyes, the rain is still pouring down, and nothing about me has changed.

In this context, the car wash scene serves as a real-life replay of her dream, albeit with one explicit and positive difference. The scene concludes with a close-up of So-young in the backseat after the “rain” of the car wash has stopped. She smiles and looks out the window, and the sun shines down upon her. It’s clear by her facial expression that something has changed about her—and for the better.

The group’s faux-familial bonds are strengthened even more by a fourth unexpected stop at a hospital to treat Woo-sung’s sudden illness. In interactions with hospital staff, Sang-hyun plays father to Hae-jin, and Dong-soo plays father to Woo-sung, but what really makes them a family is their mutual and serious concern about Woo-sung’s health. The threat of being caught is a risk that they are all more than willing to take. By this point in the film, every single member of the group has fallen in love with Woo-sung—forming an unexpected bond with each other in the process.

The fiction of a family becomes more or less a reality when they take a detour to the fifth and final unplanned stop: the theme park on Wolmido island. Together, they celebrate the impending adoption of Woo-sung, cramming into a photo booth to take a picture together, playing games, and winning stuffed animals like any typical family would do. The significance of the trip becomes clear when all five of them board a Ferris wheel in two separate passenger cars: Sang-hyun with Hae-jin in one; Dong-soo, So-young, and Woo-sung in another. The Ferris wheel serves as a reminder that journeys aren’t always a one-way trip from Point A to Point Z. There’s also the inevitable return. It is rather appropriate, then, that the Ferris wheel becomes the vehicle through which all of the characters’ stories are brought full circle, as each must make peace with the stark reality facing them.

In the first car, Sang-hyun sits on one side, as Hae-jin, cotton candy in hand, sits on the other. To Sang-hyun’s surprise, a frightened Hae-jin has turned pale, apparently so terrified of heights that he’s on the verge of vomiting. Sang-hyun quickly moves to the other side of the car and consoles the boy, who then rests his head in Sang-hyun’s lap. It turns out he’d rather be someplace else:

SANG-HYUN: Look at you, I wanted to treat you.

HAE-JIN: Bring me there instead. The car wash.

This is an oddly funny, bittersweet moment for both of them. What Hae-jin really wants is to return to that short-lived moment of pure bliss, as he must know on some level that their journey together is coming to an end. The Ferris wheel serves as a visual reminder of Hae-Jin’s fate, as he will eventually be returned to the orphanage, completing the vicious circle. Similarly, Sang-hyun, who always wanted a son, has a moment of fatherly tenderness that prompts him in his next scene to reach out to his young daughter in Seoul. Unfortunately, their reunion does not go as planned, and there is no longer a place for Sang-hyun in his daughter’s life. As a symbol, the Ferris wheel has set him back to his starting position as well—divorced, childless, and alone.  

Whereas the Ferris wheel represents a bitter return to the status quo for Hae-jin and Sang-hyun, it’s a different kind of round trip for So-young and Dong-soo. For her, it represents a mournful understanding that a return to the status quo no longer exists. For him, the Ferris wheel becomes the vehicle through which his own trauma comes full circle. In the end, it’s a potent symbol of circularity that both complicates and complements the more progressive metaphorical connotations of the road.

In the scene that follows, Dong-soo proposes that the four of them stick together and raise Woo-sung themselves. Up until this point, the role of the father in this makeshift family has been a floating title, one that Dong-soo has resisted twice before. But here, he finally declares that he’ll be Woo-sung’s father. It’s a beautiful fantasy that So-young entertains only briefly before acknowledging the cold reality of her situation: “I wish we could start over again like that. But it can’t happen. I’ll be arrested soon.” As a symbol, the circular path of the Ferris wheel is at odds with So-young’s future prospects: she can’t go back to the start. She can only deal with the potentially bleak road ahead of her. 

Meanwhile, Dong-soo’s proposal leads to a deeper realization about the journey he’s taken so far. “Seeing you makes my heart feel a bit lighter,” he says to So-young. When she asks him to explain, he replies, “My mom, too, may have had some unavoidable reason to abandon me.” For Dong-soo, the journey has allowed him to gain some semblance of closure about the mother he never knew. He can finally let go of the pain and uncertainty that has been so much a part of his identity. The Ferris wheel serves as a symbol for the round trip he’s taken back to his own beginning, how his journey with So-young serves as a kind of time travel that allows him to understand the same decision his mother made all those years ago. In this scenario, Woo-sung is not just his potential son but also the past version of himself—one that he can save from a similar fate.

Through these various diversions off the main path, each character has a chance to experience a measure of comfort, joy, or even love. It may be fleeting; it may be everlasting. But it was all made possible by a fateful road trip that became an unexpected journey of self-discovery.

On the Road Again

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
The rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.”

—Irish blessing

Broker builds to a finale that unites all of these characters for a singular purpose, one that adds a philosophical dimension to the theme of family. In a scene towards the end of the film, Sang-hyun notices that So-young rarely speaks to her son and encourages her to say “Thank you for being born” before it’s too late. So-young is too self-conscious to say it at first, but eventually they turn out the lights, and she ends up saying the phrase to each member of the group—with Hae-jin returning the favor at the end. The camera cuts to each person in the room as she says it, all deeply affected by these simple words of gratitude.

This scene addresses a fundamental question that all humans have faced, orphans or not: why was I born? This line of thinking leads to further questions like “What am I meant to do with my life?” or “What is my purpose?” As children and perhaps even as adults, we often believe that one’s purpose is attached to achieving great things. While some might equate “great things” with conventional notions of success, like money, fame, or material possessions, Broker offers an alternative perspective. For the protagonists, it’s clear that life hasn’t worked out the way any of them had hoped. And yet, these three people still have an opportunity to achieve something truly great, by working together to give Woo-sung a chance for the best life possible, the chance that none of them ever had.

And so, at the climax, they each carry out their assignment, but at great personal sacrifice. So-young must sell out the group to the police and go to jail in the hopes of reuniting with her son in the future. Sang-hyun must forgo an easy payday and take matters into his own hands to prevent Woo-sung from a dark future. Dong-soo must condemn himself to certain jail time, all for the slim chance that So-young and Woo-sung might be able to reunite one day. The detectives, too, no longer seem invested in what they will gain professionally from this case, potentially sacrificing their careers for the most humane solution the law allows.

In the end, the fellowship is broken, and the traveling party is scattered to the winds.  However, in the film’s final moments, we do get a glimpse of the future, albeit one from an obscured vantage point. Before the credits roll, it looks like the three protagonists are hitting the open road once more, perhaps to pick up Hae-jin and reunite with Woo-sung. 

It’s a nice, clear day. The rain is over, the sun is shining, and perhaps the wind is at their backs. The road ahead is up to them to decide—and for us, as viewers, to imagine.