There’s a small knickknack in my mother’s house that’s been there ever since we moved from Delaware to upstate New York in 1996. It’s essentially a framed postcard with an inspirational message, like a cross-stitch sampler that hadn’t actually been stitched. It says simply, “Home is not a place, it’s a feeling.” She has another one (which I gave her for Christmas a few years back) about how family is basically anyone you invite to your table to eat. It’s that sort of sentimentality that pervades Shoplifters, written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, which is in limited release stateside after it won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and has been submitted as Japan’s official entry for Best Foreign Language film at next year’s Oscars. It has already been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best International Film (a title it’s already won at the Munich Film Festival).
The story focuses on the Shibata family, who live in a dilapidated one-person house in a slum neighborhood. The main source of income is the widow’s pension of the family matriarch, grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), who resists any offers to sell the house and has to shuffle the rest of the residents into hiding places whenever surveyors come by, lest they learn other people are living in what would be considered an unsuitable environment.
The family is dirt poor, to an almost Dickensian degree. There is no heat during the winter, no cooling during the summer. Everyone sleeps on futons and in closets between two rooms, many sharing a mattress. More importantly, as noted in the title, they all shoplift from grocery and convenience stores to fulfill their needs for food and personal items (the Japanese title of the film is Manbiki Kazoku, which literally translates as “Shoplifting Family”). They’ll also occasionally steal merchandise to sell for profit, particularly fishing rods.
And yet, there’s no indication that this isn’t a happy family. Father Osamu (Lily Franky) works as an occasional contractor and builder, and has a zest for playing with the children despite being middle-aged. His wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) works part time as a hotel laundry maid, and is maternal almost to a fault. Teenage daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) occasionally gets called in to work PG-13 level peep shows and has an unceasing loyalty to Hatsue. Son Shota (Kairi Jo) doesn’t attend school, but he’s an avid reader, and decently smart for his age.
But again, this family runs schemes. If their poverty would remind you of the Cratchits from “A Christmas Carol,” then Osamu himself is likely more reminiscent of a different Dickens character, the well-meaning tramp Fagin of “Oliver Twist.” As the story progresses, the dynamic shifts from a portrait or vignette of a loving but desperately poor family to the increasing risks their actions bring to them. Some of the more involved antics might honestly remind you of the TV show, Shameless (particularly when it comes to Aunt Ginger), but it’s not played for laughs or shock value, as this is meant to be a sweet story, not a farce.
And a lot of that sweetness comes in the form of Yuri (Miyu Sasaki). Having nicked some groceries and bought some chicken croquettes for dinner, Osamu and Shota find a small girl hiding in a dumpster. They take pity on her and bring her home. Despite being aware of the danger of another resident in the tight quarters, the family notices signs of abuse on Yuri, who’s no more than five, so they informally adopt her as one of their own, changing her name to Lin whenever she’s in public. They’ve essentially kidnapped her, but they did so out of love, because when they tried to return her to her parents, they witnessed the abusive couple first-hand, and even when Yuri is reported missing, it’s by Child Welfare Services, not the actual parents, who never wanted her to begin with.
Over the course of the film, the layers are peeled back to reveal just how little blood there is between these people (with occasional glimpses into some very dark territory), but that reinforces the core bond of the story, that this group of people decided to become a family, even though they all knew they’d face only hardship, or worse. And in that vein, the film sings a heartwarming ode to the family we choose, rather than the one genetics assigns us. It’s about belonging, and about how even in the most dire of situations people can make things work for the sake of others.
From an artistic/filmmaking standpoint, there’s not really anything groundbreaking. The color palette is muted. The camera is for the most part stationary, though there is fun to be had with the angles at which Kore-eda frames each member of the family, contrasting upward and downward looks based on dramatic dynamics in each scene. The dialogue is fairly simplistic. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve learned a little bit of Japanese over the years through osmosis, but I rarely even needed the subtitles here, as the lines were basic enough to understand with just a little bit of exposure.
The one element that’s worth lauding further is the actual shoplifting. The opening scene depicts Osamu and Shota pulling a fast one over their local grocer, and it’s so brilliantly executed that the audience was applauding after only two minutes. The blocking and framing of these minor burglaries is immaculate, with the actors’ movements almost ballet-like. The shoplifting scenes alone (along with their immediate consequences) would make the film a shoe-in for the Live Action Short Oscar were it packaged as such. They’re that good.
But honestly, none of that really matters. This is a film that makes you laugh from that first masterfully-executed theft, then grips your heart moments later, never to let go. As a pure character-driven story, it’s nothing short of poetic in its grace. It also serves as a nice contrast to western family films, where the conflicts and resolutions are sadly too often manufactured to play nicely in front of a catchy song that gets overused in the trailers (take your pick, I’m not singling anything out here).
I love my family dearly. In fact, later this week I’m flying out to visit them so they can meet my girlfriend and I can meet my newborn nephew. But living in Los Angeles, I rarely see them, so I’ve had to form a makeshift family of my own out here. I’ve made several friends over the course of my life that I’ve adopted as my own brothers and sisters. Most of the years I’ve been out here a friend’s mother has adopted me and others when it comes to things like Thanksgiving dinner. There’s a lot to be said about the family we choose, and the feeling of home. This movie exemplifies it better than most I’ve seen.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who are your adopted relatives? How would you go about selling a stolen fishing rod? Let me know!
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