A light but haunting exploration of family

Arriving in U.S. theatres next Friday (November 23) is this year’s winner of the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Shoplifters was written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, my favourite active Japanese director (Kore-eda has made such memorable films as After Life, Nobody Knows, Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm). Kore-eda’s films are invariably thought-provoking and deeply humanizing, two of my favourite film attributes.

Shoplifters, which has been compared to Dickens’ Oliver Twist, tells the story of a poor family living in a tiny bungalow on the outskirts of Tokyo. Surrounded by apartment buildings, the bungalow is the perfect hiding place for a family with many things to hide. Among the things the family has to hide are their regular shoplifting trips, but the focus of the film is the family’s attempt to hide the newest addition to the family: Juri (Miyu Sasaki), a young girl (around six years old) who is found, cold and hungry on the street, by Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son, Shota (Kairi Jō) after one of their shoplifting excursions. Osamu’s partner, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) isn’t too thrilled to have another mouth to feed but it will not take long before she loves and treats Juri like her own daughter.

Osamu works part time (or pretends to), Nobuyo works at a minimum-wage shop (and steals from her workplace) and the teenage Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who is Nobuyu’s sister, makes money at a kind of strip shop. But what keeps the family going are the financial contributions of the grandmother (Kirin Kiki), who is collecting her late husband’s pension as well as some other mysterious income. Somehow the family gets by, eating what look like tasty meals and enjoying regular happy times. Until the family’s many secrets start to unravel.

Shoplifters is a wonderful understated film, featuring a number of sublime and gorgeous scenes as well as top-notch natural acting that makes the story feel real.

Shoplifters is a wonderful understated film, featuring a number of sublime and gorgeous scenes as well as top-notch natural acting that makes the story feel real. The excellent writing feels authentic and has a strong humanizing message. Among the film’s many insightful observations is the contrast between the life of Tokyo’s mostly law-abiding citizens and the life of this family of thieves. Guess which people are happier, more fulfilled, more loving and more compassionate.

The ending of Shoplifters is shocking and haunting, but in a way that feels fair. This moving story about abandonment makes us think long and hard about the meaning of family and what those who have no family are lacking. Despite the film’s light touch, it knows there can be serious unwelcome consequences to living outside of the law, at times giving Shoplifters a raw and dark edge.

While I recommend the film without reservation, I need to acknowledge that the setting of Shoplifters is one that I don’t fully understand. I suspect the film can only be fully appreciated by Japanese viewers (the film was a huge hit in Japan).

Shoplifters is rated R for some sexual content and nudity.

Click here for more by Vic Thiessen.

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