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Shoplifters

This is gonna be a tough one, folks. At the best of times, I find that foreign films are tough to discuss, due to differing cultural norms, national histories, filmmaking protocols, etc. But what’s even more difficult to talk about is a movie in which all the best parts and most relevant details are directly related to plot spoilers. With all of that said, I’m going to ask that you take this review with a massive grain of salt. Please read with the understanding that everything I’m going to tell you about the basic premise is a lie that will eventually be exposed by the end of the film. Moreover, please watch this movie as cold as you possibly can, so you can partake in the joy of following these characters through each individual and unpredictable scene of their lives.

With all of that established, let’s get started.

Shoplifters tells the story of a family living in a run-down shack somewhere in urban Japan. The patriarch (Osamu, played by Lily Franky) is a day laborer, and the matriarch (Nobuyo, played by Sakura Ando) is a laundress. There’s also the grandmother (Hatsue, played by Kirin Kiki), who regularly collects the pension from her deceased husband. Then we have Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), a granddaughter to Hatsue from another marriage — it’s a long story. Aki works as… um… well, she’s a sex worker of some kind, it looks like a Japanese thing.

Rounding out the family is Shota (Kairi Jo), a boy in his early teens. He’s the youngest in the family, and just beginning the process of figuring out who he is and whether he’s really okay with the lifestyle he’s been raised in. See, Shota and Osamu regularly go out shoplifting to steal the food and groceries that they badly need but can’t afford.

As a reminder, this is a family with four incomes, yet they’re still living in the gutters and resorting to petty theft. That’s a pretty strong clue there’s something not right here.

Suffice to say that even if serial shoplifting was their only crime, they’d have enough reason to stay off the grid and avoid unwanted attention. And that’s before they meet Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a young girl bearing all the classic signs of abuse. Our main characters take her in, and Yuri’s birth parents don’t even file a missing persons report… until the cops find out that she’s missing and Yuri’s face is all over the news. So if Yuri stays missing, it looks like a murder, and if she resurfaces, it looks like a kidnapping.

To get the obvious comparison out of the way, this movie does have a superficial resemblance to such recent films as Captain Fantastic, The Glass Castle, Leave No Trace, etc. Easily the most important similarity is the open question of what will happen to the kids. What kind of home is being provided for them, and what kind of life will they be ready for when they grow into adults? What effect could such a defiantly unorthodox upbringing have on a developing child?

That said, there’s a very important difference in that we always know precisely why the parent figures in those other films raised their families as they did. Captain and Glass Castle were both very explicitly about independence borne of arrogance, while Trace was about the lasting damage of PTSD. With the Shoplifters… well, figuring out the whys and wherefores is a central part of the dramatic tension. While it’s relevant to the intrigue and the character motivations, it’s not any kind of crucial theme or story point until the film is practically over.

Suffice to say that the film’s most prominent theme is about the water of the womb versus the blood of the covenant. It’s all about the question of what really defines a family, and whether it’s truly a matter of choice. Between the strangers who provide a loving home and the blood relatives who couldn’t care less, where is the true family?

The plot is so loosely structured that it barely deserves to be called as such, but there’s still a lot to keep the film compelling. A significant part of that is in the subtle clues and hints, all the little things so slightly off-kilter that it’s easy to brush them off until they finally come to a head at the end. There’s this looming sense of dread hanging over the entire film, with the knowledge that this whole arrangement is too fragile to last. All it takes is for somebody to get caught, somebody to get sick or injured, somebody to recognize Yuri… there are so many ways that this could fall apart, we’re left waiting to see which way it’s going to break. As exciting as it is to wait for the big revelation that comes when the whole facade is undone, it’s also kind of heartbreaking because the facade is so lovely.

Easily the single biggest reason to see this movie is because the characters — as individuals and as a family unit — are so compelling. They’re so offbeat that I found great entertainment in learning more about their peculiar lifestyle and philosophy. Even in the ways they argue and show affection, it’s all so familiar and yet so unique. This family has built something so beautiful and truly special, that it’s genuinely heartwarming to see how it all works, even as we know it must eventually end and may be built on a rotten foundation. Major kudos to the cast for making that work.

Oh, and of course we get a bit of lip service toward the theme of socioeconomic inequality, though it’s admittedly done in a subtle and unique way here. Additionally, the multigenerational cast lends itself to discussions about growing older. But the bizarre and unorthodox nature of this cast — given Aki’s profession as a call girl, Hatsue’s children and stepchildren, the relationship between Shoto and his new baby “sister”, etc. — lends itself to all manner of discussions about interpersonal connection and all the unorthodox ways in which we find and nurture the company we so badly need.

I can certainly see why Shoplifters has been getting so much end-of-year buzz. The characters are endearing, the performances are compelling, the script is full of surprises, and the central themes of human connection are expressed in creative and heartfelt ways. The pacing tends to drag, due to the lack of a conventional plot, but I honestly didn’t mind spending so much time with these characters.

Definitely check this one out.

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