Movie Review: Shoplifters.
This Oscar nominated drama from Japan poignantly portrays a family struggling with poverty and dignity in the modern reality of economic inequality.
Director Hirokazu Kore-Eda‘s latest film, Shoplifters, should be considered required viewing. It succinctly and passionately shows the crushing indignity of poverty and the resilience of family in our modern economic system. While its portrayal is a special indictment of Japanese social policy, it applies easily to anywhere in the world where working full time still means living in destitution. Opponents of a living wage increase should be strapped to a chair with their eyes glued open as this movie is played to them.
Enough politics; how is Shoplifters as a film? Gorgeous. The film features warm and intimate cinematography that perfectly captures the setting of the piece. The cast impressively conveys so much subtlety in their interactions and conversations. Even without knowing Japanese, you’ll pick up all the cues they send each other, creating the feel of a real family. Kore-Eda paces his film expertly, such that you experience it as a fleeting moment but remember its myriad details like a tender memory. Any way you slice it, Shoplifters is a tremendous film.
A father and son, Osamu (Lily Franky) and Shota (Jyo Kairi) are casing a supermarket, skillfully fleecing the store of the food they rely on to support their family. On the way home, they see a little girl locked on a porch in the freezing weather. Moved to pity, they take her home to feed her. The mother of the family, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), demands they return her in the morning: there are already five mouths to feed in their tiny two room shack, and despite everyone in the family working they still have to rely on theft to survive. The Grandmother (Kirin Kiki) grooms the girl for bed, discovering bruises and scars from abuse. The group agree to keep her and raise her as their own, setting them on a collision course with the law.
What the Eye Sees.
Kore-Eda’s camera work and composition is impressive. The lens is always in the perfect place to inform the viewer of the interior motivations of the characters. You could watch the film in complete silence and still get the texture of the emotions by the type of shot being employed. All the while the camera does not draw attention to itself, making the drama feel intimate and immediate.
What the Heart Knows.
I adored the cast of Shoplifters. Each actor plays their role with sincerity and selflessness. There’s very little dramatizing in this drama. The characters speak simply, often communicating volumes with the way they hold their bodies and react with simple gestures. It helps a bit to know enough Japanese to register that they’re always speaking in the familiar tense, but their every mannerism reinforces the feeling that this family is extremely close, even when they sometimes wish they weren’t.
Joy and Sadness.
You can tell from the beginning that these people are heading for tragedy. In other films about poverty, the pervasive sense of privation makes the characters pitiable, objects of suffering meant to stab you in the heart. Kore-Eda never has you pity his characters. He seems to care much more about making you empathize with them.
This family is fully fleshed out and well-rounded. You can see Osamu is a softy, even while he plays the rogue and the fool, and is cavalier in his amorality. Nobuyo covers her maternal sentimentality with a world-weary and jaded facade. Kirin Kiki’s Grandmother is businesslike and no-nonsense about chastising her brood, but you see the tenderness with which she looks at them when their backs are turned.
Like the characters, the tone of the film is realistic and well-rounded. It can be sad in places. It can be fierce and righteous. Mostly it is tender and funny. Even when the world is kicking them, this family manages a grin and moves forward in their lives.
Someone Like You.
Shoplifters is an excellent film. It’s hard to describe how easily it insinuates itself into your confidence, gaining your trust and attention with ease. Thinking back on the film feels like remembering a distant sunny afternoon tinged with foreboding, like the final day of summer before school resumes. It’s immediate and familiar, which makes the emotional impact of the film that much more powerful.
Kore-Eda’s film tackles thorny and difficult problems, but remains close to its characters. The way this family gets treated by society can make you angry. They way they weather those challenges can make you smile, even laugh in many places. It’s a rich and heartfelt drama, beautifully crafted. Thankfully it is also available to stream from VUDU before the Oscars. Go see it, you’ll be glad you did.