Calling Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Palme D’Or winning film “Shoplifters” a family drama is at the same time true and misleading — because the family depicted here isn’t your typical household unit, but the feelings are still there.
Kore-Eda — who wrote, directed and edited — starts with a 12-year-old boy, Shota (Jyo Kairi), and an adult, Osamu (Lily Franky), entering a grocery store. They have a routine that they perform like clockwork: Osamu carries a basket with goods, and stands in an aisle between Shota and the store detective. Shota drops a bowl of instant ramen in his backpack, and the two slip unnoticed out of the store.
The ramen becomes dinner for the two of them, as well as Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (Andô Sakura), another adult, Aki (Matsuoka Mayu), and the grandmotherly Hatsue (Kiki Kirin). The five all live in Hatsue’s small house, living off her late husband’s pension and their various odd jobs. Osamu works at a construction site, until a foot injury hobbles him. Nobuyo presses pants in a laundry firm. And Aki works in a “hostess club,” looking seductive for male clients in the peepshow window.
One winter night, Osamu and Nobuyo walk past a neighbor’s house, and find Yuri (Sasaki Miyu), a 5-year-old girl freezing on a porch. The couple invites the girl to share their dinner at their house. When they take Yuri home, they overhear her parents yelling, with the mother saying she wishes the girl was never born. Nobuyo decides to “adopt” Yuri, over Osamu’s protests that it’s kidnapping. “It’s not kidnapping if we don’t ask for ransom,” Nobuyo replies, inaccurately.
Soon Yuri is given a new name, Lin, and picks up the tricks Shota teaches her about the fine art of thievery. Shota likes his new “sister,” though he also feels her presence is messing up the smooth operation he and Osamu have going.
The script unfolds gracefully, while also building tension like a good psychological thriller. He gradually reveals how every member of this household engages in one scam or another, though mostly sticking to a moral code that “if it’s still in the store, it doesn’t belong to anyone yet,” as long as the store isn’t likely to go bankrupt. None of this feels sustainable, and a viewer suspects that Yuri/Lin’s arrival is the trigger that will bring the whole thing crashing down.
Along the way, as the viewer’s dread grows, Kore-Eda subtly delivers a message about the power of families — a topic he explored in a different way in his baby-swap drama “Like Father, Like Son.” Here, Kore-Eda creates a scenario where a found family, despite the external forces pulling them apart, can be just as supportive as families connected by DNA. But then the other shoe, or shoes, drop, and the viewer questions every assumption made up to that point.
It would be trite to say “Shoplifters” steals the audience’s heart. It’s also inaccurate, because Kore-Eda and his charming ensemble cast of rogues put in the hard work to earn the audience’s respect and affection. For a story about con artists and thieves, there are a lot of honest emotions at play.
Opened Nov. 23 in select markets; opens Friday, January 4, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City). Rated R for some sexual content and nudity. Running time: 121 minutes. In Japanese with subtitles.