Shoplifters – Film Review

Palme d’Or-winning Japanese drama about a surrogate family living on the margins of modern Tokyo, Shoplifters lulls you in with its gentle intimate rhythm, before dropping big heart-wrenching twists.

That these twists hit the way they do is all thanks to the intricate and delicate work done in the preceding hour and a half, where you get to know the characters and get deeply drawn into their world and lives to the point where you even might lose some objectivity.  In the opening scene, the film introduces what looks like a father and son duo, Osamu and Shota, silently communicating with each other through gestures and eye contact while on a shoplifting expedition to the store. You instantly get a sense that they’ve done it before. Back at the cramped and squalid apartment they call home, there’s Osamu’s wife Nobuyo, who works at a laundry and also pinches things, her younger half-sister Aki who makes money working in a soft-porn peep show, and grandmother Hatsue who supports the family with her pension.

One cold winter night, as they’re heading home, Osamu and Shota come across a little girl of about six shivering out on a balcony. She’s clearly neglected and abused by her parents, and after impulsively taking the girl (whose name turns out to be Yuri) home for a hot meal and sleepover, Osamu and Nobuyo decide to keep her. They justify their actions by saying that since they’re not asking for ransom, it’s not really kidnapping; kinda similar to how Osamu justifies stealing to his boy by saying that things in the shop don’t really belong to anyone yet and it’s all ok as long as the store doesn’t go bankrupt. While this line of thinking might be questionable, what’s not in question is that this family of outsiders are giving the little girl the sort of family love and care she never got from her biological parents.

While the film is warm and heartfelt, it’s also clear-eyed enough to know that socially unacceptable acts of kindness don’t come without repercussions. But until the last 30 minutes, the story developments, like Yuri’s disappearance making TV news, are so unobtrusive you barely notice them. One gets a sense that, even without the powerful and emotive drama in the end, the movie would have worked just as a sensitive and richly detailed portrait of a family and a side of Japanese society you don’t often see. The ensemble, including the child actors, all knock it out of the park with beautifully naturalistic performances, but Sakura Ando, who plays Nobuyo, is especially outstanding in the final scenes.

There’s a point near the end where the film could have concluded on a truly bleak note, but director Hirokazu Kore-eda manages an ending that is somehow both harsh and uplifting. A wonderful movie.

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