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