17 October 2018 | ctowyi
Sometimes water can be thicker than blood
Hirokazu Kore-eda's The Third Murder (2017) left me cold and entertaining the notion that Kore-eda has lost his mojo. O ye of little faith, please forgive me... Shoplifters, fresh from being minted with the highest honour, the Palme d'Or, at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is Kore-eda back to being his emotionally devastating best. This ranks in the top tier of his outstanding output. If ever there is a film that can declare that sometimes, just sometimes, water can be thicker than blood, this is it.
Somewhere in Tokyo, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky), his 'wife' Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and 'daughter' Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) live in poverty. While Osamu receives occasional employment and Nobuyo has a low-paying job, the family relies in large part on 'grandmother' Hatsue's pension. As he is shoplifting for groceries with his 'son', Shota (Kairi Jo), they discover Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a neglected girl. Osamu takes her home, where the family observes evidence of abuse. Despite their strained finances, they informally adopt her.
Once in a long while, a film can come along, sneaks up on you and sends your heart into a flutter of tiny explosions. Coming out of the screening with six other friends, we had to dissect what we had just experienced. As it turned out, it wasn't much of a deconstruction, but more of a discussion of the ideas of the family unit that Kore-eda paints with such delicate and painterly brushstrokes. That's when you realise the immense power of cinema and what it can do. This is a gem.
Kore-eda dives into his favourite theme of the family unit and observes what will happen to the bedrock of familial relationships if it goes through a seismic shift. It is a theme he has dealt with in outstanding films like Nobody Knows (2004), Still Walking (2008), I Wish (2011), Like Father, Like Son (2013), Our Little Sister (2015) and After the Storm (2016). After so many excellent films on the same theme, you would think what else can he still distill. Shoplifters may be Kore-eda most complex, but yet his most accessible film to date.
The ideas explored in Shoplifters are multi-faceted and piercingly intelligent, intermeshed into a tapestry that will fall apart if even one scene is taken out. The script is subtle and draws empathy readily. So many times the dialogue feels innocuous, only for the poignancy to hit you in the gut some time later. It doesn't judge, never points a finger at any party, nothing here errs on the side of twee. The tone is deftly maintained from the first frame to the devastating last.
As usual, the heavy-lifting is done by the youngest actors, performances so naturalistic that they feel authentic. The ensemble is superbly cast and each of them shines in their own memorable way. They may be thieves, but there is honour and righteousness in them. They do not represent the lowest strata of the Japanese society and don't believe in handouts. With a warped sense of justice, they are willing to break the rules to survive. Above all else, their love and trust for each other is the glue that binds them.
Kore-eda never cheapens the emotional ride and doles out expositions like sermons. Details of characters are gradually accumulated in a Zen manner till it hits a gut-wrenching last act.
Like a lot of his heart-wrenching films, Shoplifters feels like a 3-hour magnum opus and I was again surprised it is only a 2-hour film because Kore-eda packs so much in the story. You will no doubt feel like you had lived a lifetime with the characters. Shoplifters is essential viewing and provides many involving examinations of what constitutes a true family. I love what the matriarch of the family said in a contemplative scene at the beach and I will paraphrase - "Sometimes it is better to be with the family you choose rather than the family you are born in". Some food for thought there.