Shoplifters shows us a patchwork of people, stitched together by the pangs of desperation and loneliness. Though they aren’t related by blood, a cockeyed bond forms between this makeshift family and brings them a measured dose of happiness. Naturally, this bond will be stretched and frayed by the world around it, forcing this ragtag clan to re-evaluate their own loves and loyalties. This forms the basis of a surprisingly natural movie that combines subtle humor, wrenching drama, and brilliantly-patient direction to form a deeply-affecting cinematic experience.
Set somewhere in the slums of Tokyo, the story centers on a shambling group of shoplifters: Osamu (Lily Franky), the patriarch, works construction and busts into parked cars on the side. Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), his wife, scams the laundry where she works. Many years ago, Osamu discovered Shota (Kairi Jō), a young boy left in a car, and quickly snatched him up as a grifting protege-foster son. Shota boosts family essentials from a nearby grocery store. Finally, we have pretty young Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who dances at a hostess club, and Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), an elderly widow still collecting her husband’s pension and providing a ramshackle dwelling for the family.
The group’s world shakes to the core when they come across Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a little girl left shivering on an apartment balcony. After some squabbling, the family brings in Yuri for a little warmth and food. They spot clear evidence of abuse, which quashes any desire to take her home. Nobuyo, smitten with the daughter she never had, bobs Yuri’s hair and rebrands her as Lin. Soon, the family inducts Lin into their lifestyle of thievery and survival.
Like so many great directors, Hirojazu Kore-eda does a great job of making his camera feel invisible. Often, he sets up a shot and just lets it roll. This coaxes real, relaxed performances out his cast, with each actor bringing texture to their respective rolls. Kore-eda’s script is a marvel of deceptive complexity: Osamu, in particular, is a deeply-conflicted individual. If Yuri serves as a convenient daughter to Nobuyo, then Shota is the son of Osamu’s dreams. His desire to love and be loved contrasts to the empty ethical code to which he adheres. As a thieving rogue, the lovable-but-selfish Osamu can’t quite come to terms with the fact that he’s destined to end up alone.
Perhaps that’s this film’s greatest source of sadness: For a family who steals enough to get by, just enough turns out to be never enough. They want to know that they’re more than mere accomplices to each other. They want their bonds to be everlasting. At one point, Osamu is grilled as to why he taught Shota how to steal. “It’s all I know,” he says sadly. Shoplifters offers powerful insights into the nature of family with quiet skill and nuance. If it hadn’t come out the same year as Roma, this probably would’ve taken home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
121 min. R.
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