Earlier this year, writer/director extraordinaire Hirokazu Kore-eda surprised us with The Third Murder, a legal thriller that made for a stark departure from the sentimental family dramas he’s become known for. With his Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters, Kore-eda is back on familiar ground, but this particular family drama shares much in common with The Third Murder. With his thriller, Kore-eda deconstructed the genre, forcing us to question how willingly we place our trust in a storyteller. Similarly, Shoplifters sees Kore-eda lull his audience into a false sense of security, making us develop a warmth and affection towards people who may not warrant such empathy.
Nothing is quite what it seems here but ostensibly Shoplifters presents us with what appears to be a relatively traditional family unit, all crammed under one tiny roof in a Tokyo suburb. ‘Father’ Osamu (Lily Franky) works a low paid construction job, supplementing his income by shoplifting with his young ‘son’, Shota (Kairi Jō). ‘Mother’ Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) works an equally unrewarding job at a laundry, helping herself to any trinkets customers might leave in the pockets of their clothes. ‘Grandma’ Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) is the matriarch of the house, which was left to her following the death of her husband, and she too has various money-making scams on the go. Only her ‘granddaughter’ Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) is earning an honest living, ironically in a job that society looks down on, performing erotic routines behind a two-way mirror in a sex club.
One evening, while returning from nabbing some swag at a supermarket, Osamu and Shota come across a young girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), whom they assume to be homeless. After taking Yuri home and treating her to food, Osamu and Nobuyo learn where the child’s parents live and take her back home. While approaching the house they overhear Yuri’s parents arguing, her mother confessing she never wanted her in the first place. Such a revelation, coupled with the suspicious marks on Yuri’s body, causes Nobuyo and Osamu to return home with the girl, making her the latest addition to their ‘family’.
The ensuing drama, with its various emotional ups and downs and familial revelations, forces us to question what truly makes a family. Is Yuri better off with strangers who care for her, yet induct her into a life of crime and poverty, than with parents who can offer her a life of material comfort if not love? Kore-eda doesn’t provide any easy answers with his complex characters, whose actions cause us to constantly change our minds regarding whether we can support their way of life or not.
Osamu and his clan are victims of an unjust society, but they’re creating victims of their own through their narcissistic actions, and Kore-eda toys with how decades of crime dramas featuring lovable rogues have muddied our ability to view such characters through a moral lens. The scene that opens the film, in which Osamu and Shota raid a grocery using a variety of well-honed techniques designed to distract the store clerks, is staged and scored like a set-piece from a classic heist movie, and the energy exuding from the adrenalized thieves is infectious. We’ve just watched a grown man exploit a child to help him commit a crime, yet we come out of the scene charmed by this Fagin and Artful Dodger combo. As the story progresses, and the grim reality of this situation becomes clearer, we find ourselves feeling guilty for letting Osamu off the hook so early on.
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Shoplifters plays like a greatest hits of Kore-eda’s career, developing and deconstructing themes he’s explored before, and for most of its running time it’s right up there with the best of his work. Where it crumbles is in the final stretch, when Kore-eda hits us with a revelation that is so left field it should have the impact of a Crying Game level plot twist. Instead, it’s awkwardly dispensed over the course of an interrogation scene, and it deflates the preceding drama in much the same way Simon Oakland’s unnecessary plotsplaining did at the end of Psycho. I found myself struggling to buy into some of the character revelations dispensed in this climax. Perhaps it was because I had developed a relationship with these characters and simply didn’t want to hear such things about them, or perhaps it was simply because Kore-eda doesn’t reveal such damning information in an organic and convincing fashion; probably a little of both.
There’s a moment that comes just before this reveal that arguably would have made for a more satisfying, if far more ambiguous ending, but everything leading up to that point is magnificent, some of the best character drama to hit screens in 2018. Kore-eda’s direction is as subtly brilliant as ever, his camera never showy but always in the right place to capture just the right emotion or reaction from his characters. There’s a shocking moment conveyed with oranges rolling into a street that recalls the apple truck crash in Jules Dassin’s Thieves Highway, and there’s a hint of Dassin’s Rififi in the mini-heists pulled by Osamu and his young cohorts. Kore-eda gives us 2018’s sexiest moment when Osamu and Nobuyo find themselves in the all too rare position of being left alone in their usually crowded house on a hot sweaty day, the pair devouring noodles before ravaging each other. And of course, this wouldn’t be a Kore-eda film without a moment of human kindness that will have you reaching for the tissues - you’ll know it when you see it.
Sadly, Shoplifters marks the end of one of modern cinema’s great collaborations, that enjoyed by Kore-eda and veteran actress Kiki, who passed away shortly after completing her role. A regular in his recent work, she’s often provided the heart, and sometimes the brains, of his dramas, and she possessed the sort of expressive, unconventional face we don’t see enough in movies today. In one scene, as her matriarch watches her ‘family’ at play on a beach, Kiki mouths the words “Thank you.” For lovers of Japanese cinema, the sentiment is mutual.
Shoplifters - 4 stars out of 5
Directed by:Hirokazu Koreeda; Starring: Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Moemi Katayama, Sôsuke Ikematsu, Sakura Andô, Mayu Matsuoka