Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Cast: Mayu Matsuoka, Sakura Ando, Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky
What constitutes a family? Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters is a profound, deeply moving meditation on this question. The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 and was Japan’s official entry to the Oscars. My ideas about family are mostly fueled by Sooraj Barjatya’s cinema – you know, joyous, loving, laughing and singing extended families who are always in Hum Saath-Saath Hain mode. Shoplifters is at the other end of the spectrum – there’s great affection but also a quiet brutality. And nothing is what it seems.
The title is literal. We begin with the act of shoplifting – Osamu and his son Shota are in a department story going through what seems like a practiced routine. Osamu,with his warm smile but slightly shifty manner, is providing cover while Shota slips goodies into his backpack. As they walk home, Shota mentions he forgot to steal shampoo. Osamu says it’s too cold and they’ll get it next time.Obviously, stealing is a regular activity, like playing board games or going for long drives might be for some other family. Then we meet the rest of them – Osamu’s wife, a grandma, a young girl who I took to be the wife’s sister. They live in a messy, cramped apartment. It’s crowded but they don’t hesitate to take in a young girl who they find freezing and alone in the cold. Juri, who has scars on her arms and has obviously been physically and emotionally abused, becomes the newest member of this threadbare household.
Kore-eda doesn’t judge his characters. He presents them with a humane gaze and reveals their relationships with an unhurried gentleness
These perhaps aren’t people you would want to know in life – they steal, lie, swindle. They have no moral compass. The grandma – played wonderfully by the late Japanese actor Kirin Kiki – visits her stepson and wheedles money out of him. Then she goes gambling. The younger girl Aki works in a peep show. Soon even Juri who is barely five becomes an accomplice. Later in the film, when Osamu is asked why he taught the kids to steal, he simply answers that he didn’t know what else to teach them. But Kore-eda doesn’t judge his characters. He presents them with a humane gaze and reveals their relationships with an unhurried gentleness.
Shoplifters isn’t driven by plot. For much of the film, we are merely observing this family as they steal or slurp noodles noisily or go to the beach. But slowly, the story builds to a desperately sad and poignant climax. This is the sort of film you will want to see again – to observe the slight shifts in tone, the expressions that reveal the horror of what is going on but also the deep bond that these people have created with each other. The love is as formidable as the loneliness.
Watching Shoplifters reminded me of E. M. Forster’s urgent call in the book Howards End – Only Connect. Shoplifters is a deeply satisfying portrait of human connections. Even if you don’t usually go for subtitled foreign films, I urge you to give this one a shot. You won’t regret it.