Profoundly moving and unnerving in the gentlest of ways, Shoplifters is the type of quiet little movie that works best when playing to the unexpected. When the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last spring, it practically guaranteed accusations of being over-hyped and overrated. That will continue to happen. However, for those willing to take the time to let master Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows, Still Walking) weave his unique magic, Shoplifters offers a truly mesmerizing experience.
The story opens with some of that shoplifting that provides the title. A middle-aged man named Osamu (Lily Franky) and a young boy named Shota (Jyo Kairi) wander into a store and take a few extra things with them. We soon learn that the Osamu works as a day laborer, his wife Nobuyu (Ando Sakuru) works as a launderer (clothes, not cash), her sister Aki (Mayu Matusuoka) works as a Plexiglas sex worker, and Aki’s grandmother (Kirin Kiki) brings in a mysterious pension. The money is shared and yet they all live in a hovel, stepping over each other at all times. As such, the shoplifting is necessary, even fun. One night, Osamu and Shota even bring home a four-year-old girl named Juri (Miyu Sasaki). After noticing scars of parental abuse, they decide to adopt Juri into the family, assuming that it’s not technically kidnapping if no ransom is requested.
It all sounds odd, but when presented through Kore-eda’s observational lens, it feels completely natural, even sweet. Kore-eda is a filmmaker who loves his characters and the families he creates through them. That passion is evident in every second of Shoplifters, which takes the time to live in a space and endear audiences to the characters. Through a mixture of roaming handheld cameras and almost eerily static compositions, the screen becomes a window into a world, and the uniformly wonderful actors grow into their characters. The depressing poverty and human exploitation on display gradually falls to the background as viewers can’t help but love the make-shift family of kidnappers. They all find such joy and meaning through the little moments of connection and truth they’re able to share with those crammed into the tight and crumbling home. For 90 minutes or so, a gentle spell is cast and the satisfaction of finding a family becomes so overwhelming that even the most hardened cynics will be forced to open their hearts to the story.
Of course, that’s a trick that Kore-eda has pulled before. He’s a master of it. To merely repeat that again wouldn’t make Shoplifters a particularly interesting, if engaging exercise for the director. No, the filmmaker is building to something, a twist so unexpected that it might seem hard to swallow were it not for the fact that Shoplifters is based on a true story. Where it’s all heading shouldn’t be spoiled, but suffice to say that it completely upends what’s come before and transforms into a rather different movie – one no less warm and fuzzy in its ultimate message, but that takes a morally challenging route to get there.
What emerges is a beautiful ode to loving satisfaction of finding a family rather than being trapped in an unsatisfying clan through birth. The film remains touching in all the right ways to make art house crowds weep at subtitles. Then it also pushes them into a more uncomfortable place than one might expect from the filmmaker or message. This is ultimately a simple story, but a complex film filled with layers of sociological commentary and questions.
Shoplifters is a beautiful heart-warmer with a bitter aftertaste. It’s not a dish designed to please everyone, but will worm its way into the hearts and minds of those willing to look a little off center for their tasty cinematic treats.