Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is known for his slice-of-life family dramas. Shoplifters, his Palme-d’Or-winning latest feature, initially seems to unfold precisely in that vein. We are invited into an unconventional family – consisting of a married couple (Lily Franky and Sakura Ando), an elderly grandmother (Kirin Kiki), a young woman (Mayu Matsuoka) and an adolescent boy, Shota (Kairi Jō).
As suggested by the title, the family’s meagre finances – relying primarily on the grandmother’s pension – are regularly supplemented by shoplifting. The film opens on Shota and his father, Osamu, pilfering dinner to feed their family from a local supermarket. On their way home, they encounter an infant girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), left outside in the bracing cold. Yuri is brought home for food and warmth and, ultimately, incorporated into the family after they realise the extent of the abuse the young girl faces at home. One could call it kidnapping.
This unfolds with Kore-eda’s trademark warmth and generosity. Yuri’s kidnapping adds a persistent narrative tension, but Shoplifters softens it through focusing on the genuine love tying this family together. For the most part, this is less crime drama, more the slice-of-life family drama you would come to expect. There are complications of course, but that’s part and parcel with Kore-eda’s filmography, which is far from maudlin. The film is a portrait of a dysfunctional, financially-precarious family, sure, but it’s primarily a heartfelt portrait of authentic familial bonds.
As the story continues, the precise nature of these bonds becomes increasingly uncertain. Whose grandmother is Kirin Kiki’s character? How does the young woman, Aki, who sleeps with the grandmother at night and dances for men during the day, figure into things? And why is Shota so reluctant to call Osamu “dad”? Hints are scattered throughout the film, but it isn’t until Shoplifters’ shocking third act that the facts are laid out on the table and its true nature is revealed.
While the film’s third act is its weakest, stylistically – Kore-eda is right to puncture the film’s bubble of warmth, but the stop-start pacing lacks the mastery seen in the preceding two thirds – it’s a necessary addendum to a film that was endearing yet, arguably, slight. By drawing us in to this family for the majority of the film before adopting an external perspective, Kore-eda ensures that Shoplifters operates as a sterling example of a “machine that creates empathy.”
Were we to hear about these people – say, on the nightly news – we would be inevitably judgemental. Having walked alongside them and lived in their house over the course of a year, it’s hard to be anything but empathetic. This is very much in Kore-eda’s wheelhouse; reviewing 2016’s After the Storm, I noted that he was “generous to his characters – even the most loathsome.” Few directors are so effective at creating such sympathy, so clear-eyed in their kind humanism. A wonderful film.