REVIEW: Shoplifters

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Writers: Hirokazu Koreeda (original story), Hirokazu Koreeda (screenplay)
Starring: Lily Franky, Sakura Andô, Kirin Kiki
Runtime: 121 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      Not just any film wins the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. This film obviously made a strong impression to those deeply involved with the film industry, and I went out of my way to find a showing. After viewing it, I understand why it made such an impact. Shoplifters beautifully captures a truly human struggle while exploring the meaning of family and the idea of ethics versus morality.

      The story follows the daily lives of an extremely low-class family (though almost no one is blood-related) on the edge of poverty in Tokyo who have to resort to pilfering as a means of provision. True to its name, the film opens with a scene in which the camera tracks middle-aged manual laborer Osamu (Lily Franky) and a young boy Shota (Kairi Jō) as they shoplift from a supermarket, employing a system of hand signals, diversions, and view obstructions. Fairly shortly thereafter, we are introduced to the rest of the family: Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) who is a laundromat worker struggling for hours, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who works in the…ummm…entertainment industry, and the elderly Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) who owns the group’s home and sustains them using her dead husband’s pension. The financial burdens upon the group are quickly and firmly established, and it is clear how such circumstances have forced them into their current lifestyles and brought them together. One might be quick to condemn their actions, but the characters are established as sympathetic individuals who all seem to have a moral base of some sort despite not always making the seemingly right ethical decision. This is most evident by the introduction of the character of Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a young girl who Osamu, Nobuyo, and Shota find locked outside her family’s apartment. As she is hungry and cold, the group takes her home to feed and shelter her for the evening, but, when they discover signs of physical abuse, they decide to take the girl’s care into their own hands long-term without informing the appropriate authorities. Such a situation makes you conflicted over the actions taking place, but you become wholly invested in the premise as the characters feel very real and you care about what will happen to them.

      It feels like you are watching real life unfolding in every scene. Quality sound design is used to capture all the noises of everyday life in multiple different settings; however, a keen ear will still appreciate Haruomi Hosono’s understated soundtrack used sparingly throughout the film. Every performance including both child actors is believable and memorable. Each character has a distinct personality and issues that draw you to care about each of them as individuals. The chemistry between all the actors brings their family dynamic to life, and you get to know them as real people, and consequently are invested in each of their arcs. Despite their questionable ethical decision-making, it appears as though everyone has some degree of moral virtue to which they adhere, and each of the characters is either likable or, at the very least, understandable. Towards the end of this film, there are a number of particularly touching and meaningful emotional climaxes that give satisfying though not necessarily happy conclusions to several characters’ arcs.

      The cinematography is nothing short of phenomenal. The camera placement is so deliberate in the way it sets up the spacial feel in each scene. Inside their close-quarters home, you feel nearly claustrophobic within the environment as you experience daily life with the makeshift family. Outdoors, you are kept closely informed on character movements out in the open whether it be at street level or from a distance. Natural lighting is artfully used throughout to yield elegance to otherwise unremarkable shots. It is almost as if the shots shift between two modes: up-close-and-personal and fly-on-the-wall. At points, the camera is quickly moving to track characters and is completely caught up in the excitement of the action. At other points, it is as if the camera has just been placed on a shelf or a window sill and forgotten about as it surreptitiously captures what is happening. Finally, I liked the way the framing often helps draw attention to specific concepts. For example, one particularly neat shot towards the end uses a reflection to reinforce a main character’s internal contemplation. Even though no one scene is necessarily going to blow your socks off, there are lots of neat little visual facets you will find while experiencing this film. If I can fault this film for anything, it would have to be that I was never wowed and that it does drag a bit during the second act.

      This film is fascinating, realistic, and emotional. If you are willing to watch a film with subtitles and sans-Hollywood tropes, you will get a profoundly human experience. I highly recommend Shoplifters as it is a magnificent entry in a long legacy of quality Japanese cinema.

RATING: ★★★★

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