Posts Tagged ‘Shoplifters’

It is with a definite sense of regret that I have to report that the Phoenix in Jericho appears to have abandoned its nascent tradition of showing a classic British fantasy-horror movie for Christmas in its Vintage Classics strand. After The Blood on Satan’s Claw two years ago, and The Company of Wolves last December, I was looking forward to seeing what the programmers might come up with this festive season – a welcome revival of Hellraiser II, perhaps? Alas no: more conventional judgement seems to have prevailed and the cinema is showing its usual mixture of serious mainstream fare, cool new documentaries, and the occasional foreign-language arthouse darling.

Falling smack into the latter category is Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (J-title: Manbiki Kazoku, literally Shoplifting Family), which won the Olympic medal as far as arthouse darlings are concerned by scooping the Palm d’Or at Cannes this year. Having seen the film, I can see why: in addition to simply being very good (which is not the only prerequisite for a Cannes win, of course), it shows a distinct artistic sensibility as well as having a bit of a social conscience. (You don’t have to be an arthouse film in order to win at Cannes, of course: even a cursory glance at the list of past victors turns up a few surprises.)

At first glance, Shoplifters is a family saga of the type which Japanese directors like Yasujiro Ozu have been renowned for making for many decades. The main point of difference is that – as the title suggests – Shoplifters concerns people from the lowest levels of society. If the film had been entitled Haijshirazu No (Shameless), that might have been a better point of reference for UK viewers, but despite the superficial resemblance, Kore-eda is ultimately making something much more serious than that.

As the film opens we meet a man, Osamu (Lily Franky), and a boy, Shota (Kairi Jo), who are out paying a visit to the local shops. They are not actually shopping, of course, but making ends meet by nicking stuff, something which they are clearly highly skilled at. (It’s not really stealing, according to Osamu, if nobody’s actually bought it yet.) It all gets taken back to a small, decrepit, and chaotic home which they share with Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and the grandma of their little family (the veteran actor Kirin Kiki, in her final role). There’s also another young woman named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) present, whose exact relationship to the rest of them is deliberately kept rather vague to begin with. Officially, Osamu is a day labourer on a construction site, and Nobuyo works in a laundry, but really they live off a combination of Granny’s pension and the proceeds of the rest of the family’s criminal endeavours. (Aki has a job as a sex worker but is excused having to contribute to the family budget, on Granny’s insistence.)

The starting point for the story comes when Osamu and Shota meet a young girl while coming home from one of their thieving excursions. She says her name is Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) and she shows every sign of being maltreated by her uncaring parents. Almost by accident, Osamu and the clan find themselves broadening their criminal palette to include a sort of unpremeditated benevolent child abduction, as they end up taking Yuri into their home and making her part of the family – Shota is a little resentful of the new arrival at first, but is told she is his new little sister.

Life goes on in its cheerful way for the family, and the first two thirds or so of the film depicts this. I expect that on paper it all sounds potentially quite bleak and depressing, but what’s notable about it is the warmth of it, the compassion Kore-eda shows towards even the most dubious of his characters, and its sheer non-judgemental nature. The family look out for each other, genuinely seem to care about Yuri and her welfare, and Osamu and Nobuyo at least are surprisingly self-aware about just what kind of people they are. At least they know they are bad guys – or completely amoral – even if they don’t seem to show much motivation to actually change their ways.

The final part of the film, however, is the one which reveals the reality and the truths which underlie the family’s situation (which, for obvious reasons, I don’t want to go into much detail about here). It becomes clear that this film isn’t just about a family, but about the idea of family and the grip it can exert on people. At one point in the film, Nobuyo reassures Yuri that the sign that someone loves you is that they hug you, rather than hit you, and there is no shortage of care and affection between the different characters. And yet it becomes clear that they are also capable of shocking, perhaps even appalling acts in order to preserve the group. One of the questions raised by the film is whether it is selfish to be so compelled to have other people around you.

The film never resolves this central ambiguity – the characters remain strangely endearing, even when the true extent of their moral bankruptcy is revealed – and there are some extremely powerful, poignant scenes as the film draws to a close. Most of the storytelling is marvellously subtle and understated, with superb performances from the actors: as Osamu, Franky is unimposing and rather feckless, in many ways as much of a child as Shota, but for all of his wheedling shiftiness it is clear he deeply wants to be a proper father. Ando’s performance makes it clear that Nobuyo is the brains and quite probably the heart of the clan, the one holding it all together. There are scenes of genuine warmth and intimacy between them all – a trip to the beach together, the group gathering to watch fireworks from their porch – and these are at the heart of the film, as much as any of the scenes which make for somewhat more harrowing viewing.

Shoplifters is set in urban Japan but I think it has a rather universal quality – I imagine there are families like this scraping along in the wainscots of most modern societies, and the desire to be part of a family is again something that most people can relate to. On the other hand, this is not a film exactly bursting with mainstream audience appeal, in the UK at least – it’s a fairly lengthy foreign-language drama which has the look of a social issue film about it. But it’s a much more textured, thoughtful, and likeable film than that. Well worth watching if you’re in the mood for something with a bit of depth.

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