About halfway through Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2018 Cannes winner, Shoplifters, a simple question is met by an unexpectedly harrowing answer. The middle-aged, unemployed Osamu (Lily Franky) asks his daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) what she thinks keeps him and his wife Hatsue (Sakura Ando) together. Aki stares blankly at him for a painful moment and then unflinchingly utters, “money.” Osamu looks as though he wants to refute the notion but doesn’t. This moment, as random as it might seem, encapsulates the central ambiguity the film raises: are human relationships, despite being clothed in the conceit of ‘family,’ transactional by nature? Or can they be something more?
Kore-eda is one of the most adept filmmakers in dealing with these delicate and universal ambiguities in the context of a family. Can parents love their children unconditionally if they didn’t turn out the way the parents wanted? (Still Walking ) Which one is more important in a father-son relationship, genetics or time? (Like Father, Like Son ) Is a divorced father any less a father? (After the Storm ) To answer these questions is a futile task, but Kore-eda isn’t as interested in answering them as he is in raising them, and Shoplifters is no different here. Although not his best effort, Shoplifters is anchored by a superbly layered and structured script that slowly peels away the wounds of a family on the margins of society and its tragic members. And as always, Kore-eda’s understated direction allows for his ensemble cast, most notably the two young actors, Jyo Kairi and Miyu Sasaki, to breathe life into their characters in a documentary-realist fashion. We find ourselves hopelessly reeled in to the dynamic of the family, unable to let go as the credits roll in the end.
As the title suggests, the family we’re dealing with here is one that shoplifts. In the first scene, we witness a perfectly executed shoplifting maneuver by the sharp-eyed, 10-year-old Shota (Jyo Kairi) and Osamu at a supermarket. They mostly shoplift out of necessity, but they also have a lot of fun doing so, thanks to the sage philosophy Osamu has instilled in Shota: products that have not been purchased don’t belong to anyone.
On their way home on this freezing day, Osamu and Shota notice Juri (Miyu Sasaki), a tiny and terrified girl sitting outside a shabby apartment. Realizing that she’s been abandoned by her parents, they bring her to their cramped apartment in a lower-class neighborhood, where we meet the rest of the family: grandma Hatsue (played by the ever brilliant Kore-eda regular, Kirin Kiki), mom Nobuyo, and big sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka). Instant noodles is the only item on the night’s menu, but it’s enough to warm everyone in the family, including the new member Juri.
The narrative unravels slowly and assuredly from this point on, leaving tiny breadcrumbs for the audience to trace the endearing mystery of this family. We see Osamu work a part-time construction job, Nobuyo slaving away in a local laundry facility, Aki stripping in a quasi-sex service shop, and Shota exploring the poor surrounding neighborhoods with Juri, shoplifting when they feel like it. Who really supports the family? Why doesn’t Shota or Juri go to school? What do they plan to do with Juri? The breadcrumbs tease us as we move scene to scene, image to image, and when we arrive back at ‘home,’ deep into the third act, it will look much different from what we’ve been led to believe.
The handling of this revelation is also where this film briefly falls short. While the writing in the first two acts feels consistently suspenseful, organic and evenly-paced, we get the sense that it rushes to wrap things up in the third, through a sequence that can be described as nothing more than mere exposition, a technique that Mr. Kore-eda knows better not to abuse. For example, despite dealing with a murder mystery at the heart of his last feature, The Third Murder (2017), he manages to steer the narrative towards its thematic concerns wherever exposition is usually employed, and simply let the plot seep out from the heavy covers of his characters’ internal struggles.
Kore-eda’s Tokyo in Shoplifters is unlike most Tokyo’s we see on film: it hides behind the quiet slums, the narrow walkways, the decrepit corners and almost never features the hustle and bustle of the city itself. Kore-eda and cinematographer Ryuto Kondo craft their gritty images out of clutter – that of homes, streets and convenince shops – clutter that curiously harmonizes with the messy structure of the family. Out of this beautiful clutter, we experience fleeting but heartfelt moments of acceptance: a mother compares a wound on her forearm that looks suspiciously similar to that of her adopted daughter’s, a couple stealing a brief private moment to make love in a usually populated space, a brother protecting his sister from a disastrous future.
You might question some, maybe most, of the choices the characters make in the film, and they are probably wrong in the court of public opinion. Yet, we can’t help but feel torn, between the underlying tragedy and warmth in the story, the love and resentment, the growing up and innocence, the practical and idealistic. While we might hate Kore-eda for leaving us painfully ambivalent as we walk out of the theaters, the questions he raises are some of the greatest gifts in cinema.