English Title: Shoplifters
Original Title: Manbiki kazoku
Genre: Crime, Drama
Director/Writer: Hirokazu Koreeda
Music: Haruomi Hosono
Cinematography: Ryûto Kondô
Over two-decades of studiously enriching our world cinema with his rapier-like, thought-provoking, yet tonally restrained and refined analyses of human interrelationship in a contemporary Japanese society, especially on the subject of “what constitutes a family”, often fêted as Ozu of our time, Hirokazu Koreeda has finally procured the Holy Grail, Cannes’ Palme d’Or with SHOPLIFTERS, in a fairly competitive year.
Set in the present Tokyo, which is suspiciously wanting of video surveillance, SHOPLIFTERS recounts the stories about a cod family within a roughly one year time frame, starting in the end of winter. A household of five, cramming in a small house with knickknacks bursting at the seams, owned by pensioner Hatsue Shibata (Kirin, who passed away in September 2018), other members including Osamu (Lily Franky), a middle-aged construction site temporary worker, Nobuyo (Sakura), his companion, works in a laundry factory, a young boy of school age, Shota (Kairi), and Aki (Mayu), a comely girl earns cash in an “image club” (a Japanese pornography parlor).
One night, Osamu and Shota, on their way back from a successful shoplifting outing, brings home a young girl Yuri (Miyu), who is neglected and abused by her parents. Although their act can be deemed as a de jure kidnapping, Nobuyo cannot bear to return Yuri to her biological parents after she overhears their spat. Yuri’s induction into the family both spurs Shota’s role as an elder brother and elicits Nobuyo’s maternal affection (scars can tell). Koreeda’s trademark aptitude of disseminating each character’s backstory in dribs and drabs pays great dividend in formulating a compelling character study of these sympathetic bottom dwellers, and he is perceptive enough to leave ambivalence for audience to shape up his or her own interpretation, like how Aki ends up living with Hatsue, who is literally her ex-grandmother and what happens to Hatsue when her husband jilted her and started a new family, it is little afterthought like that achingly tickles a re-watch.
The story arc is inevitably veering into a dissolution of their rickety status quo, when Hatsue kicks the bucket, her pension has been the mainstay of their non-consanguineous union, also, Shota feels the pressuring moral sense regarding shoplifting with Yuri tagging along, so finally he chooses to end it all, let the world of justice to deal with the aftermath. No pandering sentimentality is offered, everyone returns to where they belong, for good or worse, in Koreeda’s manner of reconciliation and continuation, some has to accept the consequences, but also, a regained clearance that may be beneficial to them, like Shota and Osamu’s son-father bond, there is a brighter future, sharply counterbalanced by the ambiguity in Yuri’s situation that closes the whole picture.
Among Koreeda’s own output, thematically and visually SHOPLIFTERS are more akin to NOBODY KNOWS (2004), still this reviewer’s favorite, the camera inconspicuously slithers on a dime in the house from which one cannot see but hear fireworks, and beholds the happenings with a subdued, compassionate intimacy.
It goes without saying that SHOPLIFTERS has an ensemble cast extraordinaire, old players like Kirin, befittingly and effortlessly sending a heartrending valediction with a “thank you” in their beach outing, but also emanates disarming wiles that can only be acquired through life itself when she goes to emotionally blackmailing a rich couple where much is left undisclosed to obviate a simple black-or-white verdict.
Lily Franky perfectly injects his happy-go-lucky indolence into a small-time shoplifter who has nothing else to teach his ersatz son, and his hankering for a validation as a father is both painful and comical, he is not an orthodox father figure, but Koreeda contests, he is a far cry from the worst. Then there is the insuperable Sakura Andô, in her first collaboration with Koreeda, who munificently allots her a killing static shot to elicit her character’s final confession and puzzlement of what makes one a mother, her dexterity in canalizing her emotional influx is just too ineffable, one must see it to believe it.
Last but not least, kudos must be tendered to two child actors, Koreeda really has a knack in singling out underage talents, under his tutelage both Joy Kairi and Miyu Sasaki are induced to carve out their unalloyed feelings with wholesome credibility, especially for the former, who plays up his guilt conscience vividly with astonishing nuances to convey a salient message, it is our ingrown conscience that diverts us from wrongdoings, a boy genius is officially uncovered. A final verdict, under layers of jeremiad, it is a sheer marvel that SHOPLIFTERS retains its spirit and buoyancy through and through to celebrate an unconventional family, not bound by blood but empathy and kindness, not disbanded by internal strife but a tacit understanding that such precious communion cannot last forever, a great lesson of letting go without letting yourself down by it.
referential entries: Koreeda’s LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (2013, 8.2/10); NOBODY KNOWS (2004, 8.6/10); STILL WALKING (2008, 8.0/10).