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Review: Manbiki Kazoku (Shoplifters)

Ciaran Brass reviews Shoplifters, where a family of small-time crooks take in a child they find on the street

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Image: Thunderbird Releasing

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Kirin Kiki, Lily Franky, Jyo Kairi
Length: 2hrs 1 min
Rating: 15

Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda's Shoplifters was considered an upset win at this year's Cannes Film Festival, snatching the top prize from flashier options such as Spike Lee's incendiary BlacKkKlansmen, South Korean veteran Lee Chang-dong's misanthropic masterpiece Burning, and long-time festival darling Jean-Luc Godard's challenging and experimental The Image Book. Koreeda's unassuming style, low-stakes drama, and aversion to sweeping statements concerning The World We Live In were unlikely to make him the bookies' favourite for the Palme D'or. This begs the question--what were the qualities of Shoplifters that captured the hearts and votes of the often-unpredictable Cannes jury?

Director Koreeda's oeuvre can be neatly divided into two different categories--first are his films chronicling individuals dealing with the aftermath of seemingly insurmountable tragedy, such as Maborosi and Distance, and second are his gentle portrayals of the minutia of modern family life, including Our Little Sister and Like Father, Like Son. Shoplifters occupies the latter; it is a charming, lightly comic, Dickensian tale of poverty, familial bonds, and petty thievery.

Image: Thunderbird Releasing

The opening scene is one of the film's greatest pleasures. Through a series of signals and sleight-of-hand, Fagin-like patriarch Osamu (Koreeda veteran Lily Franky) and his young son Shota (Jyo Kairi) conduct a small-scale heist inside a supermarket. Koreeda is careful to define Osamu and Shota's actions with what could be termed "responsible thievery"--while the duo has no qualms about burgling essentials from the supermarket, they purchase food from a street vendor outside. On the way home, Osamu takes pity on a scarred and starving five-year-old girl called Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) who has seemingly been left outside in the cold to her own devices, and suspecting maltreatment, impulsively decides to bring her to their cramped, ramshackle home.

As Shoplifters is ostensibly a character drama, it's welcome news that all actors are on the top of their game. Lily Franky plays Osamu as a goofball and arguably a good-for-nothing, but it is his tender, pleading desire for Shota to see him as a legitimate father figure that is endearing. Kirin Kiki is welcome comic relief as the acerbic "Granny", the owner of the house who draws a small pension but seems to spend most of it on the Japanese slot machine game pachinko. Her granddaughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) would appear doe-eyed and naive, if not for the fact that she plies her trade inside a seamy peep-show house. She cultivates a tender, touching romance with one of her clients, which leads to one of the most emotionally affecting scenes. Last is Osamu's partner Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), a world-weary laundress who initially chastises Osamu for bringing home another mouth to feed but soon develops a close bond with Yuri. Koreeda has a tried and tested system for directing child actors, which consists of mouthing their lines to them during filming instead of giving them a script. Through this system, he is able to avoid the typically stilted delivery of younger performers.

Image: Thunderbird Releasing

Over the course of the film, Koreeda takes great pleasure in inserting this unusual family in common domestic situations. They bicker, they eat, they go to the beach. Osamu and Shota discuss the problems of puberty; Granny dispenses wisdom on how to stop bedwetting. Osamu and Nobuyo are interrupted in the afterglow of sex by the two children. Ultimately, it is the ethical fate of young Shota that raises conflict in the latter half of the film. Osamu tells Shota that shoplifting from stores is acceptable because no one owns what's inside the store yet, but as the family faces increasingly desperate circumstances he urges Shota to help him liberate an expensive-looking purse from someone's car. When Yuri begins to copy Shota's light-fingered techniques, a shopkeeper admonishes Shota, giving him sweets on the condition that he doesn't allow his sister to copy his actions. There is a distinctly interrogative nature to the final half-hour. As their actions past and present take on more sinister implications, Koreeda places the camera directly in front of the Osamu and Nobuyo, seemingly to give them a chance to justify their actions to the audience.

Hirokazu Koreeda's family-oriented films often draw comparisons to those of legendary Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose most famous works were released from the late 1940s until his death in 1963. Aside from different formal approaches (while Koreeda is no slouch visually, Ozu is one of the greatest visual stylists in cinematic history, using superb geometric framing, his signature "pillow shots", and resplendent use of colour post-1958) Koreeda and Ozu's approach to family dynamics are almost diametrically opposite. While Ozu is interested in the tensions that form between traditional family dynamics, Koreeda revels in exploring atypical family situations. Both, however, are treasures of world cinema, and it is heartening to see Koreeda get his due. In one of the deepest years for cinema in recent memory, Shoplifters proves it belongs in conversation with the best 2018 has to offer.

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