Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Writer: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Cinematographer: Kondo Ryuto
Producer: Matsuzaki Kaoru, Yose Akihiko, Taguchi Hijiri
by Jon Cvack
Shoplifters is one of the four Best Foreign Films nominees, including Cold War (2018), Roma (2018) (which will - and did - win and begs the question of what is a “foreign” film; shouldn’t it be non-American produced film, as then it begs the question as to why there aren’t more foreign Best Picture films and how it’s another symptom of systemic bigotry; [this was written before Parasite (2019) and seems to be further proving the point), Capernaum (2018; which won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes), and Never Look Away (2018; which at 188 minutes, I probably won’t see until it’s released on video).
I’m surprised I haven’t heard of Shoplifter’s director Hirokazu Kore-eda who’s made four other well-rated films that I’ll be checking out soon. Shoplifters sounds your generic art house plot being about a family of direly poor shoplifters who take in an adolescent girl living on the Tokyo streets.
A middle aged man and day laborer Osamu (Lily Franky), recently sprained an ankle which takes him out of work. His wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) works at an industrial laundry service. Their alleged grandmother Hatsue Shibata (Kirin Kiki) is retired and living off a pension which she’s happy to share with the others. A girl we think is Nobuyo’s sister, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), works at a peep show where she masturbates in front of men for money. And Osamu’s alleged son and Aki’s actual brother Shota (Kairi Jō) simply helps Osamu steal.
That is until they meet Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a girl not even five years old crying behind a dumpster, hungry and alone; having run from her abusive parents. The family take her into their two room, junk-filled shack reluctantly and with absolutely gorgeous set design, the rickety place somehow feels intimate and welcoming. Throughout each scene, it is rearranged so that even after two hours, I’d wager that no single shot in this two room house is the same. A magnificent feat in and of itself, let for the rest of the story. At first, Aki and Noboyu are reluctant. Shota doesn’t like that his thieving duo has now recruited a new member; and so it’s mostly Hatsue’s grandmotherly expertise that sways them all over, as she attempts to feed the girl chicken broth cabbage; providing one of the first moments of making what should be a disgusting food look absolutely delicious (an accomplishment of equal success throughout the rest of the film).
At Osamu’s urging, Shota soon welcomes Yuri into the group and teaches her their methods; which as we learned from the opening scene, involve one person diverting or blocking the attention of the clerk while the other takes what they need. As Yuri becomes increasingly comfortable, Yuri’s kidnapping makes national headlines. Not wanting to go back, the family knows they can’t hand her over, opting to instead change her name to Lin.
All the while we learn more about the family and the details of what they do and what it’s like; all caught with Kondo Ryuto’s stunning photography; capable of making even the most banal or visually insignificant moments pop off the screen. Ozu’s influence is heavy in this film; though somehow advancing and progressing the style rather than a simple imitation. The camera is often locked down or provided the slightest move, typically waist high to the character; allowing us to soak in the design and fully immerse ourselves within the character.
Similar to my thoughts on Satja Ray’s Aparajito (1956) and Mahanagar (1963) - and especially in today’s rising xenophobic political environment - I wish most people could watch these films simply to understand how similar all of humanity is; especially when it comes to family. We see Nobuyo, Aki, and Hantse bicker and fight, each having their own interests and personalities, occasionally hopeless, but otherwise content. We watch as Shota fixes in his abandoned car fort, gets jealous of his new sister, while Osamu does his best to be a good father. Combined with the photography and design, I soon forgot all of their faults and obstacles. In a brilliant scene, they gather outside during a holiday for the fireworks, but living where they do, they can’t see them, only listen. Nobuyo cuddles Yuri, hoping she’ll accept her new name and that they all can protect her from her parents. In another scene, they go to the beach and Osamu catches Shota looking at Nobuyo’s chest. Later they play in the ocean and Osamu attempts to talk to Shota about it, providing one of the most endearing scenes of the film; perfectly capturing the universal awkwardness of sex and attraction.
Shota soon becomes frustrated and embarrassed by Osamu’s thieving; especially for corrupting a child as young as Lin. Soon it comes to a head when Lin first attempts to steal and Shota steals the store’s attention by blatantly running out with some oranges. He’s chased, cornered, and then jumps off a bridge in a gorgeous shot. Later Hatsu dies, but they decide to bury her beneath the house
In order to keep collecting her pension.
From there the film takes a fairly big nose dive, as each of the character’s get interrogated and in a convoluted mess, the viewer pieces together how they’re all related. Even after looking up the synopsis I’m still confused. I think Osamu and Nobuyo killed Hante’s abusive husband for living a double life and now live with Hatsue’s and her granddaughter Aki. Wikipedia says differently, in that Osamu and Nobuyo killed Nobuyo’s abusive husband, and that Hatsue was guilting her husband’s other family for money and that Aki was their daughter. I’ve gone through half a dozen websites and no one either specifies what happened, or it’s skipped over entirely. For a story who’s iceberg simplicity worked for the first three quarters, it felt as though this demand to piece together details - especially from an interrogation, rather than images - made this just too hard to follow. And if it wasn’t for Sakura Ando’s performance in closing out these sequences, it might have derailed the entire film.
It recovers a bit, but ultimately the film took a wrong step, leaving me with more questions than answers; pulling me out of its intimacy and into having to think and therefore bounce back and forth between the story and my thoughts throughout the last half hour. I’m sure another viewing or two would do the trick, and the film will elevate once I grasp the details. And yet even still, with all that in mind, it’s still one of the best films I’ve seen all year. Whatever comes to happen, the moments before have been burnt into my mind; of the meticulous compositions and uses of light and a blue, yet warm palette; of the moments between the characters and how true and real it all felt. I’m excited to see the rest of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s work, as he truly seems to be a modern Ozu.
BELOW: Couldn't find much beyond the trailer, so here ya go
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