Director: Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Stars: Lily Franky, Kirin Kiki, Sakura Andô
More commonly than not, Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s cinema is about family. His recent police procedural The Third Murder merely interrupted an ongoing streak. Shoplifters – which scooped the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year – revives the director’s ongoing inquiries. Here, however, family is a broad term, open to flex and manipulation. The viewer is asked to play sleuth to root out the connections, and what is presented as fact frequently isn’t.
Shoplifters also breaks from Kore-Eda’s usual class setting. Where most of his work has been settled and framed within the comfortable middle class, here he travels down a notch or two to spend time among the poor and sub-working classes. A middle-aged man, Osamu, (Lily Franky), takes a boy, Shota (Jyo Kairi) – who appears to be his son – shoplifting. They have an established routine sprinkled with hand-gestures; thefts are like missions. On their way home one winter night they see an under-nourished young girl (Miyu Sasaki) sitting in a window. They take her home to share their croquettes.
They keep her.
Home is a claustrophobic little house crammed with the bodies of their patchwork family. Osamu’s partner Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) is the makeshift mother figure. Is Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) her younger sibling? The group sustain themselves, barely, thanks to varying menial jobs (labour intensive or on the borders of the sex trade) and with the aid of the pension drawn by ‘Granny’ (the late Kirin Kiki) whose home they all share. The arrangement feels more akin to refugees huddled together for warmth. The five-year-old girl they have in effect kidnapped becomes known as Lin, and this criminal precedent keys us into the first of the film’s quiet revelations; these people aren’t a blood family, but societal stragglers approximating a traditional unit. And Lin isn’t the only one among them ‘taken’ from another life…
The group roguishly cut corners on what society permits – the shoplifting sprees are endemic of this – but they do so to perpetuate their own existence together. This in itself sees Kore-Eda edging into social politics, but still he remains far more focused on how people bond and interact. As such, and in keeping with films like Our Little Sister and Like Father, Like Son, there is a great deal of warmth and Shoplifters expands to allow us to enjoy these people enjoying one another’s company. The seasons roll by. A day at the beach sees the ensemble further mimicking what it is to be a ‘normal’ family, while a hot summer’s day provides Osamu and Nobuyo a rare chance at intimacy. In this scene, Kore-Eda mingles sex and food playfully; a slippery batch of noodles prefiguring a cloudburst and downpour.
The isolationism of modern society – and perhaps especially modern Japanese society – seems to be of concern here. These people cling to one another fulfilling a shared psychological need. Elsewhere, Kore-Eda lightly suggests the ghostly loneliness that might otherwise await them. Aki works at a peep show joint, but a private session with one of her more mysterious regulars becomes an unlikely source of emotional rawness. The john cries in her lap and clings to her without saying a word. It is as though simple human contact is enough to cause overwhelming emotion. Of course, ever the master, Kore-Eda doesn’t overplay this. The moment exists and is quietly devastating just as it is.
Speaking of devastating, all players here are remarkable – across all age ranges – but the pick of the litter turns out to be Andô. Her Nobuyo is the soft heart of the adults presented, and while late film revelations cast a strange tint to her overall wellness, Shoplifters is at its most remarkable when it presents one of the most realistic depictions of crying I can ever recall seeing on film.
The cinema loves criers, be it melodramatic bawling or the rote cliché of the single tear. Here in Shoplifters Kore-Eda hangs on a shot of a woman trying to hide her tears. Andô wipes at her face over and over again. The lights capture the oiliness of her skin. We watch and its like there is nothing outside of the frame. It’s another tiny wonder captured by one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, heartrending and entirely human.
There tends to be a sense of gentile, reserved distance in Kore-Eda’s work. That is slightly infringed upon here. Because of the lack of space, these characters are frequently boxed in together or appear closer than usual. Within arm’s reach. In step with this, we come to know them and their world intimately, and by the time events start breaking up the status quo, the world of the film has been so richly drawn that the final act feels a little heartbreaking. The last half hour feels a new kind of distance entering the story. We feel at a new remove from the characters and mourn their togetherness, their closeness. And we, like them, always knew it could never last.
It is here that the already evident message of the film comes clear; family is what you make of it and made of who you want.