“What defines a family?” is a question that runs through many of the films of Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda, from the heartbreaking abandoned children of Nobody Knows to the strained relations and recriminations of Still Walking to the loving embrace of Our Little Sister. Shoplifters (Japan, 2018) presents a family on the margins brought together by circumstance rather than blood.
Three generations live together in a tight little hovel practically lost in the maze of alleys, living off grandma’s meager pension, father’s menial day jobs, mother’s laundry (supplemented by whatever she pilfers from pockets), and adult daughter’s joyless peep show job, with groceries shoplifted daily by adolescent son Shota while dad keeps lookout. When the two find a withdrawn little girl shivering in an alley (she’s been locked out by her mother), they take her home and she joins the clan, embracing the warmth and bustle of the overcrowded apartment.
Kore-eda doesn’t romanticize their poverty—they always seem to be one misstep away from losing it all, which only gets more uneasy when the girl’s face is suddenly all over the news—or their thieving instincts. It simply is their way of life. But as he reveals more of their actual identities, rolling out details of their past and poor parenting decisions, he complicates his (and our) our instinctive affection for these outcast and abandoned people.
That’s the beauty of Shoplifters. Kore-eda favors the intimate and subtle over big drama, and this film is filled with both touching and heartbreaking moments of affection and disappointment. Beautifully acted and directed with sensitivity, it is a poetic film about what makes a family, and how we forgive those we love.
It took home the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for Academy Award for best foreign language film.
Rated R for nudity, sexual situations, and language.
In Japanese with English subtitles.