FILM REVIEW: "Shoplifters" Invites You to Join the Family; Steals Your Heart During Dinner
According to the director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Shoplifters explores the question of ‘what makes a family?’ This isn’t the first time the Japanese director has tackled this idea (see his 2013 film, Like Father, Like Son,) and it probably won’t be the last. Because Shoplifters makes it clear that the question of family is a highly nuanced one.
The film tells the story of an unconventional family living in poverty in Tokyo. They do what they must to survive, from shoplifting to scamming. And, for the most part, they seem to get by happily enough. The opening scene where the father and son duo (Lily Franky and Kairi Jō) ply their trade in a supermarket is jaunty enough that it wouldn’t feel out of place in an Ocean’s movie. But this isn’t a story about criminals. This story starts as the pair are travelling home, lamenting the freezing night, and find a young girl who has been locked outside on her parent’s balcony. Concerned, they invite her into their family home, allowing us to travel inside with her. Here, we meet the other members of this family of five (now six), who live in a tiny, well-worn house amidst the towers of the city. Conditions are cramped: Auntie shares a bed with Grandma and the son literally sleeps in a cupboard. But when they come together to share a meal (a ritual which is repeated throughout the film), the screen is filled with an incredible sense of intimacy.
This is what struck me most about Shoplifters: how consistently intimate it feels. Many scenes, especially within the family home, are shot in a way that makes them feel cramped. The focus is often obscured by someone else’s shoulder or elbow or pot of ramen. But instead of feeling crowded, this gives an impression of cosiness. It’s as if we are firmly within this home, sharing the space with this family. The truly visceral sounds of them eating furthers this sense of immersion. Even during quieter scenes – such as when the youngest, Shota, sits in an alleyway with his new sister and teaches her the basics of shoplifting – the camera sits so close that we feel as if we’re not just overhearing these conversations, we’re a part of them.
It’s not hard to feel drawn to these characters, who, although recognising the difficulty of their circumstances are not weighed down by them. This affinity for the characters is compounded by the excellent performances throughout film. Special mention goes to Sakura Ando, who shines as the quietly charismatic and forthright mother-figure. In one scene, she and grandma have a discussion on the extent to which we are capable of choosing our family. And there is no doubt that Shoplifters does an excellent job of enticing you into this one. That being said, the film always returns to that question of what makes a family. Why are these people drawn to each other? How far will their loyalty go? And who are they, truly, as individuals?
Shoplifters gives satisfying answers to some of these questions while tantalisingly sidestepping others. It’s an excellent depiction of family in that it doesn’t give you everything you want. It’s complicated. It’s dynamic. At times, it’s distressing. But ultimately, you just feel glad to be here, around these people.