MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★★½
Release year: 2018
Genre: Crime, Drama, Foreign Director: Hirokazu Koreeda

Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda is an artisan of empathy. Like Asghar Farhadi, Ken Loach, or (my personal favorites) the Dardenne brothers, Koreeda’s cinema focuses on the extraordinary within the ordinary, the complexities of emotions and ethics of familial dynamics in the urban margins. His work has (rightly) been compared to Ozu, another Japanese master with a penchant for living-room dramas about family relationships. The comparison is apt; Koreeda is one of our present-day cinematic giants, and his gorgeously-shot and perfectly-acted Palme d’Or-winner film Shoplifters fits well within his pantheon of masterpieces.

Like many of Koreeda’s recent films (Our Little Sister; Like Father, Like Son), Shoplifters is about nature vs. nurture, the tension between familial belonging and freedom of will. Are we born into a family or do we choose our family? Shoplifters examines the difficulties of this question when, on their way home after a “shopping” trip of purloining groceries, father-figure Osamu (Franky Lily) and his pseudo-son Shota (Kairi Jyo) stumble upon a despondent little girl, Yuri (Sasaki Miyu) left alone on the front porch of a dilapidated apartment. They invite her to their home, a cramped and cluttered apartment belonging to their “grandmother” (Kilin Kiki), where they join Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) and sex-worker teen Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) for a hot family meal. Mute and scarred, Yuri elicits sympathy from the family, who decide to take her in rather than return her to her abusive and neglectful parents. Despite this initial invitation into their “home” and “family,” Shoplifters patiently reveals the unorthodox links (or lack thereof) between this six-fold amalgam of characters. There is a genuine sense of affinity and belonging, but how these relationships formed and where they are headed is tenuous, if not tragic.

The rich mise-en-scene and powerful performances elevate Shoplifters from a sentimental melodrama to something much more complicated and affecting. Koreeda’s camera is patient and kind, giving gentle attention to particular places and things in this corner of the world. Every performance is exceptional. Andô is especially good here–her name should be showing up more in the Best Actress awards–in her facial expressions and posture, her bodily movements and quiet embraces communicating far more than any verbal language. There are large political resonances here too, allusions to the tumultuous economics and legislation–not to mention the profound loneliness–of modern-day technological Japan. Every conversation somehow revolves around money or the lack thereof; even if it’s never said, financial security undergirds every interaction and looms large in the background. When key narrative revelations in the third act disrupt the semi-utopian family existence this group of misfits has created, Shoplifters threatens to become a mawkish or didactic tale. Yet the film maintains its parabolic features–its transcendent mysteries imbued in everyday circumstances and decisions–in Koreeda’s keen directorial decisions, choosing to show the morally-muddled mess of this story rather than tell us what is “right” and “wrong” in the situation.

Like Roma–another international 2018 film about family connections that go beyond bloodlines–Shoplifters‘ key scene takes place at a beach. As their grandma watches with an elegiac sadness, the group of five unrelated individuals rush to the edge of the shoreline, the ebb and flow of the waves like the nebulous relativistic ethics this little community embodies. They laugh and play in the water, a sort of baptismal frolicking which feels like a respite from the harshness of their meagre urban existence. In a country where a 2011 tsunami wiped out thousands of Japanese lives and displaced many from their homes, the image of a family happily playing at the water’s edge is one filled with pathos and the hope of redemption.

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