Starring Kirin Kiki, Lily Francy, Moemi Katayama, Sosuke Ikemastsu, Sakura Andô, Jyo Kairi, Yuki Yamada
Shoplifters became the first Japanese film to win the Palme D’or since 1997. Typically that honor shortlists the winner for the Academy Awards best foreign language top five. Hirokazu Koreeda’s slow, meditative drama about a family living in poverty is the type of cinematic story that unfolds through patience and understanding. Shoplifters presents some difficult questions for the audience to answer and the conclusions might alter your way of thinking. At the center of his story, like he has in past films, Koreeda explores “what is a family”. “Maybe the bond is stronger when you choose your family,” one of the characters says. The performances across the board are good, from Kirin Kiki’s final film performance to Sakura Andô, who’s subtle raw, seemingly effortless portray steals the show.
What appears like a family living in near poverty, all housed up together, sharing their burden of the responsibility, is something more out of choice. The choice being, this family isn’t related, but one created by circumstance and fate. Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is the most recent addition, a 5-year-old left unattended child in the cold, now apart of this loving unit. Grandma (Kiki) sets most of the rules, it’s after all her pension that keeps shelter over their head, but even she too has some side job schemes. Osamu (Francy) was working construction until an injury, now he spends most days with Shota (Kairi), shoplifting in the local markets and stores. “It’s ok to call me dad,” he tells the 12-year-old, who understands but isn’t comfortable with that label just yet. They all have to be careful so no one discovers their dwelling or situation, but when Yuri’s face appears on television as missing, they must make a decision on how to proceed next.
While Shoplifters takes time to get into, once you get the rhythm, everything else comes to life.
Shoplifters is a refreshing take on family dynamics. Koreeda explores and challenges social norms as these parents, trying to do better than what they see around them, talk openly and frank to the younger ones. In one cavalier scene, Hatsue’s granddaughter, who also lives among them by choice, explains to the elder about her job as a no-touch sex worker and the fad of “side-boob”. This type of open dialogue is seen throughout the film, including another with father and son in the ocean. Koreeda is careful not to have a narrative opinion on the choices the family makes. One wrong turn and the delicate balance this family has created will crumble. Do the ends justify the means? Many will struggle with the choices various characters make and that’s the goal, to create a conversation.
While Shoplifters takes time to get into, once you get the rhythm, everything else comes to life. Much like the scene where the family enjoys the sounds of the nearby fireworks, despite being unable to see them, they are content with that they have in that moment. It’s their imagination that make the experience complete. It’s ultimately a film about belonging and choices. Shoplifters lingers long after the final heartbreaking moments. It may not be the most beautiful film to look at (again, it’s about poverty) but beauty doesn’t come from the best cinematography work of the year, rather what this family creates organically. Intentionally lacking a melodramatic original score, silence is chosen over emotional music cues. Shoplifters doesn’t have the staying power or creative genius like Roma (it’s main competition), but it’s certainly one of the more effective foreign film submissions this year.
Shoplifters is a challenging but poignant look at a non-traditional family unit that will question your values.