Film Review: Shoplifters

Members of a family living on state support are not what they seem in an award-winning drama from Hirokazu Kore-eda.
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Families—how they form, how members interact, what they stand for—have been the pre-eminent concern of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Over a career that reaches back to documentary work in the 1990s, he has explored family dynamics with an honesty and insight that has few parallels in cinema.

Shoplifters, his latest, is Japan's submission for the Best Foreign-Langauge Film Oscar. It won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The film has received almost universal praise from critics. It also marks one of the final performances from the outstanding Kirin Kiki, who died this summer.

After the courtroom procedural The Third Murder, Shoplifters marks a return to the wrenching social drama of films like Nobody Knows. The deceptively quiet opening shows Osamu Shibata (Kore-eda regular Lily Franky) and young Shota (Jyo Kairi) performing as a team in pocketing items from a grocery store. Outside they find a young girl, Juri (Miyu Sasaki), shivering in an alley.

Osamu brings Juri home to a tiny, cramped house hidden from the street by trees and fences. His wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) complains that they don't have enough to feed her, but no one has the heart to return Juri to a home where she has clearly been abused.

Rin is just the latest addition to a family that has formed around the venerable "grandmother" Hatsue (Kirin Kiki). Everyone works—Osamu on dangerous construction sites, Nobuyo at a commercial laundry, and the college-age Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) at an Internet sex site. Hatsue's job is to collect her dead husband's pension, and to gently extort money from his children in another family.

With reduced hours and shrinking pay, the Shibatas need to steal to survive. Store owners and government workers are largely sympathetic, but society as a whole doesn't want to acknowledge poverty this pervasive.

But Kore-eda is interested in more than depicting social issues. When Juri wants to help Shota steal candy from a neighborhood store, the Shibatas are faced with moral choices that will cause irrevocable changes. What will happen to the family they've constructed? How will they respond to betrayals and deceptions? What exactly are the bonds that tie people together?

These are of course universal issues, ones that Kore-eda examines with remarkable sympathy. It's not just cinematographer Ryuto Kondo's beguiling imagery, or Kore-eda's own contemplative editing, or the uniformly superb performances that make Shoplifters so moving. It's Kore-eda's understanding of, and tenderness towards, characters who are overlooked, outcast, almost voiceless.

Kore-eda shows how they share the same dreams and worries as we do, how their problems match our own. If there is any hope, it's in Kirin Kiki's face as she watches her family playing on a beach. Her care, concern and gratitude elevate Shoplifters to the sublime.