Film Review: Shoplifters

Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters is a compelling, heartfelt look at what makes a family, no matter where they come from, among the struggle of the lower class in modern day Japan.

Koreeda opens the film with a boy and his presumed father carrying out the title act of the film, but quickly gets more complicated when they decide to bring home a girl who is found out in the cold. From there we meet the family we will spend the rest of the film getting to know, cramped in their small home right along with them. The boy Shota, the patriarch Osamu, the matriarch Nobuyo, her sister Aki, and their grandmother Hatsue all welcome this new girl, Yuri, into their home rather easily; and even press on when they realize she is currently missing.

This reveal, and how this family reacts, is one of the first clues that this crew might not be what they seem, but Koreeda never lets any of the inconsistencies that pop up around Osamu’s story feel sinister or nefarious. This is a family. They all love one another in their own special way and they will do what they have to keep it together; until they can’t.

I hate being cagy around seemingly innocuous plot points, but this is a simple tale the unfolds beautifully over its runtime. Koreeda keeps dropping in little moments around the edges that come into full clarity by the end of the film, revealing a very skilful tale that challenges the viewer to accept/reject everything they saw before.

The cast in the film is impeccable, with Sakura Ando’s Nobuyo being the standout for me. She and Lily Franky, playing Osamu, are at the center of the picture, and he’s great too, but Ando is just a captivating screen presence. She brings so much subtle humanity to the part, and the family, we just can’t stay mad at her, even when she is making some wrongheaded decisions. This sentiment can be applied across the board to the cast, all of which are up to a bit of no good, but they and the film make it hard for you to ever feel that. We like these people, we get drawn into their struggle, so what if they steal a couple things here and there? The fact that Koreeda manages to flip that all on its head, for both his characters and the viewer, and no one feels ashamed, is in a large part due to the way Ando handles the last act of this film.

Kairi Jō and Miyu Sasaki are two of the better child performances I’ve seen in some time, as Shota and Yuri, respectively, and the chemistry that forms between the two of them can’t help but make you smile; even as Shota pulls Yuri deeper into the family’s life of small time crime. The are often alone, carrying a third of the picture I’d say, and you never feel weary of their abilities. Kirin Kiki plays the grandmother of the family and she is as impressive, always keeping you on your toes as to what she might be up to. Mayu Matsuoka gets the smallest part as the sister, Aki, but she also feels the most tragic of everyone involved. The most in over her head, and Matsuoka nails every moment she get.

Shoplifters won the Palme D’Or this year at Cannes and it is a worthy honor. It might not be my favorite film that screened at that year’s festival, that I’ve seen, but I totally get how the humanity of this film could bowl people over. Koreeda has crafted a human tale that is tender, funny and fair every step of the way. A subtle character study, but a worthy one through and through.

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