Shoplifters movie review: In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winner, the family that steals together, sticks together

Prahlad Srihari

Jul 08, 2019 16:21:40 IST


Language: Japanese

Rating: ★★★★☆

Shoplifters movie review: In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or-winner, the family that steals together, sticks together

The Shibatas (clockwise from top left): Osamu (Lily Franky), Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) and Aki (Mayu Matsuoka)

Did you know the original meaning of the idiom, "Blood is thicker than water", is actually opposite from how we use it today?

Despite its ambiguity, it's an idiom which has always divided opinions. It has also been the subject of a lifelong study for Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, who has examined family relationships and dynamics throughout his career. While his earlier films, from After Life (1998) to Still Walking (2008), dissected the family as a biological unit, they began to evolve beyond that since Like Father, Like Son (2013).

After all, family is defined by more than just blood and last names. It is intrinsically more complex than shared chemical attributes in our DNA or a biological likeness in our genes. Kore-eda thus deconstructs — before reconstructing — a Japanese family unit in his Palme d'Or winning film, Shoplifters — which released in Indian cinemas nearly 14 months after its world premiere at Cannes 2018.

Shoplifters’ deceptively simple Oliver Twist-like tale is sublimely articulated by Kore-eda, who finds in it nothing short of the whole wide world. We are introduced to a poor Japanese household that runs petty scams to scrape a living. Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) is a construction worker by day and teaches his son, Shota (Jyo Kairi), the art of shoplifting by night; his wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) works in an iron-fisted industrial-scale laundromat, where she rebels by occasionally snaffling the odd clothes home; her twentysomething half-sister, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), strips for sleazy men in a peep show; and they all live under the roof of grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), relying mostly on her late husband's meagre monthly pension to survive.

Osamu teaches Shota (Jyo Kairi) how to shoplift and Lin (Miyu Sasaki) too joins their shoplifting expeditions soon.

Osamu teaches Shota (Jyo Kairi) how to shoplift and soon, Lin (Miyu Sasaki) too joins their shoplifting expeditions.

One day, on their way home after their shoplifting exploits, Shota and Osamu come across a seemingly abandoned and ill-treated five-year old girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) and bring her home for a warm meal. Before long, they decide to take her in permanently — burning her clothes, cutting her hair, rechristening her Lin and, of course, teaching her their shoplifting ways. Though she is virtually mute in the beginning, even Lin begins to warm up to her makeshift family. And just as you warm up to this ragtag group and rationalise their well-meaning kidnapping, all the skeletons in their closet begin to spill out one by one.

Kore-eda imbues this domestic drama with so much depth, realism and humour, you can't help but empathise with these unconventionally authentic characters dwelling on the fringes of Japanese society. One of the virtues in this tale of vices is he refuses to moralise the family's illegal enterprises. After all, their petty crimes are driven by nothing but the simple human drive for self-preservation. He pulls of a tricky balancing act of endearing us to these morally dubious characters while leaving troubling hints about their dark pasts.

From Nobody Knows (2004) to I Wish (2011) to Like Father, Like Son, Kore-eda’s work has often focused on the marginalised. With Shoplifters, he renews his focus on issues surrounding abandonment and separation of children while examining the minutiae of everyday domestic life. So, as usual, food plays a symbolic role. Scenes in After the Storm highlight the emotional significance of a home cooked meal over slurping noodles at a ramen shop. Still Walking opens to a montage of an elaborate meal preparation with daikons being peeled, carrots being chopped and edamame being salted. Just like the four siblings in Nobody Knows, the Shibatas too pretty much survive on instant cup noodles — and whatever groceries Osamu and Shota have shoplifted. When the characters sit together to share a meal, it gives them the emotional security of a warm family environment. So, it is food that binds these relationships. And the low camera position allows the viewer to feel like they are in the room with these characters as they are noisily slurping away. Meanwhile, the meditative long takes lend a quiet intensity to the drama.

More stills from Shoplifters

More stills from Shoplifters

Kore-eda offers an intimate view of a poverty-stricken Japanese family from ground level, where the ground is continually cut from underneath their feet. He offers empathy in place of melodrama and uncomfortable truths in place of easy-to-swallow pseudo-epiphanies. He takes a premise dripping in sentimentality and somehow wipes away all the sappiness, leaving behind only subtle underlying emotions. Tempering humour with sadness, Franky, Ando and Kiki put in broad comic performances against a background of despair and tragedy — which is as much a result of their environment as it is due to their individual choices.

Kore-eda's artistry lies in his simplicity of telling a compelling story and his depth of understanding the human condition. Shoplifters may be one of his most heartbreaking movies, but it's also one of his most heartfelt.

Updated Date: Jul 08, 2019 18:19:55 IST