“Shoplifters” Movie Review

Have you ever wondered what a dose of so-called “tough love” would feel like in cinematic form? By my estimate, this film is about as close to that feeling as we’re likely to get for the foreseeable future. This Japanese family drama originally premiered as part of the official competition selection for the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It ultimately went on to win the coveted Palme d’Or, the first Japanese film to do so in 21 years. After screening at a handful of fall festivals such as TIFF and AFI, Magnolia Pictures released in the United States on November 23rd, 2018, with an expanded rollout in the subsequent weeks. Thus far, it has grossed over $64.8 million at the worldwide box office, including a strong intake from domestic markets, and has received Best Foreign-Language film nominations from both the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Written and directed by Hirokazu Kor-eda, one of the country’s most acclaimed contemporary auteurs, the film had been in his mind for several years with a strong interest in the structure of families. He looked into numerous reports of poverty and was also strongly influenced by the effects of the recent Japanese Recession. Kor-eda also apparently was inspired when he toured a local orphanage and noticed a small girl reading a children’s book by author Leo Lionni. Set in modern-day Tokyo, the 2-hour story focuses on the Shibatas, a dysfunctional and impoverished family who mainly rely on shoplifting and low-end jobs to scrape by. One night on their way home from one of their sessions, father and son Osamu and Shota, played respectively by Lily Franky and Kairi Jō, come across a young girl in the streets. This girl Yuri Hojo, played by Miyu Sasaki, is brought into their home and becomes accustomed to their way of life as the rest of the unit attempts to adjust properly. I had heard of this highly acclaimed film for a long while, mainly since it premiered at Cannes. I’m usually attentive to the big winners at the festival, but this one just seemed fascinating for how different it seemed from films that usually take the major prize. While I’m not familiar with Hirokazu Kor-eda’s work, this film seemed like a more accessible arthouse film than usual. Moreover, my regular theater also partook in a bid where a portion of the proceeds made from the film would be donated to a shelter for the chronically homeless in Austin, Texas. And believe it or not, this actually ended up being the first foreign-language film I’ve seen in theaters. That doesn’t matter though, because Shoplifters is indeed worthy of the Palme d’Or and many of its other accolades it’s been receiving. Truth be told, I’m not very informed on what’s going on in Japan in current events. But judging from this film, and the way Kor-eda handles the subject matter, the socioeconomic conditions of the lower and middle class citizens is about the same as it is here in the U.S. We watch as this one particular family struggles to get by just on the daily, whether it’s earning the bare minimum wage or taking periodical trips to the grocery store just to get some food. What’s most remarkable about Shoplifters is how non-judgmental the whole thing is. All of the characters are damaged individuals, but can also be truly caring and honest. It’s really a breath of fresh air to find a film that treats its characters and ideas with three-dimensionality and respect. In a perfectly cast lead role, Lily Franky leads the pack as the resourceful and witty father Osamu. He may not be well-educated, but he still keeps his wits about him and tries to live by a moral code. When confronted with what he’s taught his children, he simply says, “I can’t think of anything else to teach them.” Newcomers Kairi Jō and Miyu Sasaki also do impressive work as Shota and Yuri, respectively. Despite the griminess and poverty that surrounds them, they manage to stay optimistic and forego the cliched childhood innocence that such characters are usually prone to, although they do try to cling to that. And arguably the biggest scene-stealer of the bunch is Sakura Ando as Nobuyo, Osamu’s hard-working and strong-willed wife. She’s extremely subtle and quiet in her own suffering, but still carries a warmth and radiance that’s hard to shake off. The rest of the family is rounded out by Mayu Matsuoka as the complicated aunt and the director’s frequent collaborator Kirin Kiki as the elderly matriarch of the family, in her final on-screen performance. What’s fascinating is that while we learn quite a bit about each person, there’s still plenty more left open to interpretation. And yet, each actor embodies their character so beautifully like a real, fleshed-out human being. Meanwhile, Shoplifters also manages to showcase Hirokazu Kor-eda as a technical master in control of his craft. Shot on 35 mm celluloid, cinematographer Kondo Ryuto is able to capture the streets of Tokyo in such an authentic and nuanced way. The use of real film creates a crisp grain and texture for the images shown, and is never too showy. It often times follows the characters in little tracking shots and just as easily utilizes intimate, Demme-style close-ups. Meanwhile, the editing is done by Kor-eda himself, who is remarkably patient and careful with his cuts. He knows exactly when to stay on a subject long enough and where to trim out the fat. These include two moving shots of the family playing together at the beach and an extended close-up of Nobuyo processing her actions. Renowned songwriter and musician Haruomi Hosono provides the extremely minimalist film score for this picture, his first in many years. It’s a very sparse soundtrack, comprising only 18 minutes over a 2-hour runtime. But it’s still worth mentioning, as it lacks normal convention- possibly due to its unusually short length. It’s surprisingly piano-heavy in the majority of tracks, and rejects using a real structure or melody to carry through the whole thing. It also uses softer percussion and strings for scenes specifically involving Shota to highlight how much of a difference his world is from his father. With an enormous heart at the center and a naked eye observing issues of poverty and familial connections, Shoplifters is a highly emotional and humanistic drama that engrosses from the start. After watching this film, I’m not surprised in the least by all of the love that it’s received over the last several months. Hirokazu Kor-eda knows just what he’s doing here, and I’m mighty hungry to check out what else he’s done.

Image result for shoplifters poster

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