Film Reviews

Film Review: Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)

Steal A Way Home

by Andres Solar

It’s natural to hear of a Cannes Palme d’Or winner and to think, “Okay, what makes this film so special?” Shoplifters, the 2018 big prize recipient, written and directed by Japanese master Kore-eda Hirokazu (Like Father, Like Son [2013]), is a three-strand braid of excellence. The first consists of the director’s strength of sensitivity, with which he crafts moments of exquisite human tenderness. The second strand is the filmmaker’s finely crafted, wholly real-feeling family, richly detailed in their functioning and dysfunctioning, in and out of their overcrowded abode. The third is the writer’s compelling story of this financially poor, cobbled together family that refuses to give up on life and love.

The plot centers more or less on Osamu and Nobuyo, a married couple living in a rented space in Tokyo. The husband Osamu tries to maintain a job, but is injured. He’s an expert shoplifter and general thief, anyway, and that’s his true chosen profession. Nobuyo works at a laundry service and also does her share of pilfering. They share their home with four others of varying ages and sundry talents in cons, dayjobs, and scams. Kore-eda seems to have written into the film the ways in which the characters bring money to the household for one primary purpose: to show how little it all matters in the bigger picture.

In fact, as the tale unfolds, we see clearly what else each family member brings into the household and to each other. One of the director’s finest feats here is presenting a picture of poverty that’s not always ugly and not always pretty. It’s complex, and Kore-eda manages the intricacies perfectly.

Inspired photocompositions in collaboration with cinematographer Hosono Haruomi include several instances of people talking to each other through thick panes of glass. As in The Third Murder (2018), the filmmakers make beautiful use of angles where you see both the back of a character’s head and their face (reflected in the glass) in the same shot. The technique differs from similar angles using actual mirrors, in both the transparency of the glass (which can vary depending on the desired effect) and in the related interaction with another person who’s physically on the other side. In scenes here, where a sex worker talks with a client in this manner, the stilted nature of the relationship is enhanced by the pink glass partition.

The dozen-or-so moments of thrilling cinematography are distributed evenly throughout, but there’s a heck of a story to be told, and Shoplifters is no mere photographic display. What it is is a profoundly felt tale of wide-ranging, ever-changing family dynamics. Every note struck by every actor rings spontaneous and true. Moments of happiness, heartbreak, and humor weave in and out with consummate naturalness. In this sense, Shoplifters stands as a work of realism both quintessential and unusual. Maybe even in a league with Bicycle Thieves (1948)?

It is true that a motivated person will find a family of one kind or another, and that’s at the core of Kore-eda’s story. As much as homo sapiens has brought an ignoble reputation upon itself, its perdurable—even pitiful—sociability remains endearing. Even redeeming.

5 of 5 stars

Film Reviews

Film Review: The Third Murder (Sandome no satsujin)


In a crisp, neo-noir style that includes inspired cinematography, Kore-eda Hirokazu (Like Father, Like Son [2013]) bravely draws you into abandoned alleys of wrenching human worriments. Rest assured, there are no clear exits or easy answers.

In The Third Murder, Shigemori is a young lawyer called upon to represent a convicted killer who, after serving 30 years in prison, confesses to a new slaying. As Shigemori and his colleagues scheme to save Misumi from the death penalty, facts arise and stories change. Is the goal to find a resolution satisfactory to both the defendant and the plaintiff, or is it to find the truth?

The Japanese writer-director—in perhaps the film’s overarching theme—asks what the differences really are between the everyday imprisonments of life and the literal incarcerations of prison. Just how free are we? How just is it that we’re not totally free? And, as societal norms increasingly encroach on our liberties—especially under authoritarian power—at what point do hard-case individuals simply decide they would rather live behind bars?

So, Kore-eda’s biggest triumph in The Third Murder is his courageously mining the depths of the murderer Misumi’s motives. This mirrors attorney Shigemori’s tenacity and openness in seeking the truth. As you might expect, performances from all involved excel, with the co-leads particularly nuanced and engaging.

Takimoto Mikiya, who has worked with the director twice before, delivers cinematography with flashes of brilliance again here, and again empowers the story through well-imagined visual emphasis on the writer’s themes. Particularly effective and intriguing are the Misumi-Shigemori shots at the jail, where the actors’ kinetic reflections in the protective glass between them evoke the characters’ moods, comparing and contrasting. Images of their faces interact and overlap, sometimes overlaid nearly to the point of becoming one.

However, Kore-eda and Takimoto’s collaboration here feels less organic and viscerally thrilling than their work on Like Father, Like Son. There, they reached a higher level of visual storytelling, with the director displaying uncanny skills in blocking and timing, and the cinematographer capturing sublime images seemingly effortlessly.

This time around we have a film that’s not as tidy in its narrative flow. Certain symbols, such as crucifixes and a girl who is lame of a foot, come and go without much relevance or development.

The Third Murder sees Kore-eda Hirokazu expanding his cinematic language and drawing from new muses. We miss the tenderness of his deeply felt films on family. Already a qualified success with this courtroom-crime effort, though, his turn bodes well for future works, where we’re likely to witness his mastery in a greater variety of settings. And we won’t have to wait long; His Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters (2017) is scheduled for theatrical exhibition in Miami Beach this winter.

4 of 5 stars