Shoplifters: A Film that Will Steal Your Heart

Shoplifters (2018)
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Magnolia Pictures, 121 minutes, (Rated R for brief nudity and sexual situations)
In Japanese with subtitles

Shoplifters is a classic "small" film, but this one captured the Palme d'Or at Cannes. In a quiet and unpretentious way, director Hirokazu Kore-eda raises socially contentious questions whose answers are ambiguous.

One of these is the split between absolute and situational ethics. Should we always adhere to a "thou shalt not steal" ethos, or are there situations in which it's justifiable? It's easy to assert the first, but if your family was desperate, would you steal to help? If you answer "yes" to that, you face the central problem of situational ethics. Where is the border between moral and immoral? Is it okay to steal from a corporate giant such as Walmart, but wrong to filch from a mom and pop store?

Let's up the ante. What would you do if you found a cut, bruised, and weeping five-year-old in a dumpster? No one has reported her missing, though there is a nearby apartment from which you've heard shouts, slaps, and screams. The little girl slides into the rhythms of your family. Would you be tempted to "adopt" her as your own? How about a boy you find abandoned in a car? Or a grandmother whose biological family wants her out of the way? All of this is fodder for the bigger question of what makes a family. As Nobuyu, the surrogate female head of household rhetorically asks at a key moment in the film, "Giving birth automatically makes you a mother?"

Throw in some hand-to-mouth poverty and you've got quite a rice pot full of sticky ethical conundrums. The film's very title tells you that the "family" relies upon unorthodox ways to make ends meet. Most visitors to Japan see a neat and prosperous nation, but this film's principals are squatting in a section of Tokyo analogous to U.S. swamp poverty. Their hovel­–just a few rooms in which everything from cooking to sleeping to sex occur–is chock a block with things useful and not: cooking pots, baskets, noodle bowls, scavenged junk, and pilfered items awaiting black market sales. Space is so cramped that when bedrolls pads are laid out, all six sleep in a big lump.

The occupants are:

·      Osamu Shibata (Lily Frank), an inept construction worker and perhaps not overly bright paterfamilias
·      Osamu's wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who toils in a laundry
·      12-year-old Shota (Kairi Jō), who has learned his "father's" shoplifting skills and hand signals
·      5-year-old Yuri, posing as "Lin," who is learning the family trade from her "brother"
·      Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), the "big sister" role model, though she earns money in an R-rated peep show/sex club by displaying her beautiful face and ample cleavage
·      Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), an elderly woman who extorts money from her biological family under surprising pretenses

Can such a unit bond? One of the film's subthemes concerns itself with whether Shota can bring himself to call Osamu "dad." Shota is an intelligent lad and he's pretty aware that shoplifting may be Osamu's greatest talent, just as he's cognizant that he and Nobuyo really care about him. But can a "father" sanction teaching a 5-year-old to steal? And, of course, there's the whole child snatching issue. Or, is it really "rescuing" unwanted and kids? Credit goes to Hirokazu for giving a new twist to the presumption that biology and parenthood are synonymous. He forces us to consider whether a child is an object that can be "owned."

Surrender to this film's Japanese aesthetics. In Western films, one usually gets to know characters early on, but their motives are suspect. A lot of Japanese cinema is the opposite. In Shoplifting we know the motive (survival) from the start, but it takes time to figure out how everyone is connected. This means it's "slow" film by Western standards–more atmosphere than action. In many cases, though, the film's mundaneness is a virtue. It is rare to see screen families portraying everyday life, especially if it centers on creative foraging such as that in Shoplifting. The film's pacing is difficult at first, but the slow-to-reveal back-stories somehow makes us care more deeply about each.

Even if you don't speak a word of Japanese you can tell you are witnessing fine performances. Kirin Kiki is superb as a chameleon who is the affectionate grandmother to the Shibata clan, but a calculating grifter when dealing with her son and his second wife. Hers is the sort of performance that would gain a best supporting actress nomination were she acting in English. It's also hard to take your eyes off Kairi Jō (Shota). He is a beautiful child with eyes that shine with fierceness and determination.

For me, though, Sakura Ando was the most memorable of all. In the film (though less so off-screen), she bore a physical resemblance to Sandra Oh. Ando's performance was subtle, but she conveyed a lot of information through a crinkly smile or a taut sad face. Hers is further proof that you need not wail like an arena rock star to get a point across.

I don't know if Shoplifters will be nominated for a best foreign film Oscar. It's certainly worthy of consideration. I highly recommend you seek out this film. I suspect it will be a while before it shows up online and it's a movie you'd not wish to miss.

Rob Weir
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