What constitutes a family? It’s a theme, like an instinctual migratory destination, that the compassionate Japanese helmer Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Like Father, Like Son“) returns to time and time again. Following the mixed response from his previous effort, the uncharacteristic whodunnit “The Third Murderer,” his latest film, “Shoplifters,” finds the 55-year-old filmmaker revisiting the Ozu-like of family and the plight of marginalized people on the fringes of Japanese society.
What differentiates “Shoplifters,” from some of the gentle director’s past humanist stories is the less refined protagonists: a cobbled-together collection of street kids that steal from local shops to survive. A typically soft-spoken, although a sometimes slight drama, “Shoplifters” nonetheless features some of the most humanist sequences of Kore-eda’s career. And it isn’t until a last-minute surprise which upends the entire narrative that the narrative reveals itself to have darker edges.
Ozamu (Lily Franky) is the patriarch of the aforementioned makeshift family; he’s taught his son Shôta (Jyo Kairito) to commit petty thefts on the regular. And they’re not just talented; they’re expert shoplifters resembling the “Ocean’s 8” group coming home from Whole Foods. The rest of the clan, are a loving unit consisting of Shota’s grandma (Kirin Kiki), mother (Sakura Ando) and sister (Miyu Sasaki) that all live under the same shanty roof. However, this family portrait fractures and moves into more complicated territory when Ozamu and Shôta find a lost little girl named Juri (Miyu Sasaki), abandoned in the streets. When they take her in, Juri reveals her parents abused her. Later, it is announced, on a chance glimpse of television, she is missing, and authorities are on the lookout. Faced with a difficult decision, Ozamu and the family eventually decide Juri is safer in their clan. Their dillema and questionable reasoning become the moral centerpiece of the movie.
Is Ozamu doing the right thing by keeping her as his own in a safer, more loving, but economically deprived, squalid environment? Is Juri telling the truth? Delving deeper into the details reveals too much of the intrigue and the unexpected twists that develop, but it’s an admirably entangled judgment that becomes increasingly resonant as the film progresses.
Despite the familiarity, “Shoplifters” is still intimate and illustrates Kore-eda always has inspired things to say about his favorite topics: family, isolation, Japanese culture’s repressed qualities and the failure to communicate among loved one. But the movie’s intricate virtue and the deep wells of empathy that Kore-eda imbues in the story are its greatest weapon.
Naturally, “Shoplifters” balances its problematic moral considerations with charming vibrancy. Kore-eda wins the viewer by capturing simple moments with sincerity and beauty: a family trip to the beach; a rainy day with both “parents” alone in the house that rekindles a spark between them. However, there is a minor quality to the writing, and the formal rigor of the staging sometimes distances the viewer emotionally. That is until the surprising third act.
Technically, “Shoplifters” is impeccable. The filmmaker excels with his grounded, Ozu-like camera and the movie feels like a humane, judgment-free invitation to examine the daily life of this ad-hoc, poor, but still fulfilled family. Kore-eda’s sensitive eye captures their simple joys, their sorrow, their moments of laughter with warmhearted spontaneity. There is perhaps no other filmmaker on the planet who has mastered the art of creating rich onscreen life with such delicacy and generosity and these true-to-life moments create an overwhelming, heartswelling humanism. Trying to pick apart his native country’s struggles between tradition and modernity, legality and crime, Kore-eda takes the time to affectionately dissect the way family functions, before carefully deconstructing it and revealing the contoured complexities that live within. [B+]