- don’t spoil yourself! -
The idea of a chosen family is not one that comes easy to many. For those at the margins of society, chosen families are often the only means of survival. We saw this firsthand with this year’s FX hit Pose, but it remains a transcendent concept, one that surpasses borders, nationalities, and circumstances. In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film Shoplifters, we are met with a group of people who coexist as a family, but lying underneath this guise are the bittersweet secrets that hold them together. And to one’s surprise, there is shoplifting involved. Shoplifters took home the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and has gone on to win acclaim from around the world, including recognition from the Academy and Barack Obama. But even more importantly than sheer recognition, this film has accomplished something greater, which is to humanize these characters struck by poverty and, quite literally, living on the margins.
Coming from Hirokazu Kore-eda, a prolific and renowned filmmaker, Shoplifters is carefully built with an impeding sense of naturalistic humanity. The film opens with father-son duo, Osamu (Lily Franky) and Shota (Kairi Jō) Shibata, as they execute one of their frequent shoplifting gigs, gathering everyday things like chips, shampoo, etc. At first glance, the scene is rather humorous, but also showcases the impressive (and desperate) lengths of their resourcefulness and I am reminded of The Florida Project. They come home to a family comprised of Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), sister-in-law (or daughter?) Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki); their house largely serves almost as its own character among them. There is no personal space to be spared in this house, which is immediately cluttered and cramped on top of the five people occupying this small space. At one point, Aki asks Osamu how he and Nobuyo are able to have sex here, and the answer is they literally cannot, for there is simply no space. Square footage aside, this house remains their only option, as the family already lives secretly off of the grandmother’s pension. And with the addition of Juri (Miyu Sasaki), a five-year-old girl kidnapped by the main couple, this is where we set the stage for Shoplifters.
The film is slow, making sure to spend time with each of its main characters to ensure a holistic deep-dive into each of their stories. Their family is ordinary in essence, but the individual stories that unravel as the film progresses lets us know there is more to this family than meets the eye. Grandma Hatsue notices the bruise marks on Juri’s arm when she first joins the house, and when news hits months later of her disappearance, things begin to snowball for the Shibata family. Eerily enough, the characters aren’t very shaken up, because this kind of news doesn’t impact them as much as we think it should. They chop off her hair and get her new clothes and proceed with their life. Kore-eda doesn’t dramatize these seemingly big events because that’s not the point of the film. Rather, he spends his time focusing on the familial aspects of the story. We see them burn Juri’s old clothes in a tender moment between the mom and child; we see the family go to the beach, a (retroactive) last-ditch effort for some togetherness. But their bliss is broken as Kore-eda slowly tears away at their mask and we come to find out what actually is holding this family together.
Shoplifters is quiet, melancholic, and careful; it is tender when it needs to be, but leaves you at the edge of your seat even when its characters are holding on just fine. Unglamorous in every sense of the word, but also warm in every way. It’s hard to know where the film is going until everything hits at once. The third act is a slow but tense build in which the family is torn apart, but somehow still held together from the nostalgic times they spent in their cramped home. The only way I can describe this film is bittersweet, not just within the narrative, but also in that you are left wanting more. I want whole movies on each of the individuals, every detail on what brought them together in the first place, and what’s going to happen now that they’re not. I want to know if they’ll survive, given how gingerly they were holding on before.
There is a glimpse of hope for some, but not for all. Haruomi Hosono’s somber and expertly mild score reinforces that. With standout performances from all the cast, and especially Sakura Ando, there is not a detail out of place in Shoplifters, and this film has quickly ascended to the top of not just my Best of 2018 films, but also my favorite films of all time.