Hirokazu Kore-eda is a regular at the Cannes Film Festival, with many of his gems screening here over the years. So would Shoplifters live up to our expectations? Abso-blinking-lutely.
The story revolves around a family of grifters, using their ingenuity and thieving skills to make ends meet. Dad is Osamu Shibata (long-time Kore-eda collaborator Lily Franky), a loveable rogue who combines working on a building site with shoplifting to provide for his family. There’s his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), her sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), Granny (Kirin Kiki, another Kore-eda stalwart) and the couple’s son Shota (Jyo Kairi). They live piled on top of one another in Granny’s minuscule apartment, and are like a criminal version of the Bucket family in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as beds are shared and cabbage soup is slurped. Like the Buckets, there is much love and tenderness between the family members despite the cramped conditions and frugal means.
The family gets a little larger when Osamu brings home Yuri (Miyu Sasaki). She’s been left out in the cold by her fighting parents and when Granny cleans her up, she finds bruises and burn marks. So is this a kidnapping or a rescue? The couple fight over whether to keep the girl, but in the end Nobuyo crumbles and cannot bear to send the child back to her life of neglect. Thus begins the girl’s indoctrination, with a new name, haircut and a crash course in shoplifting. Shota is antagonistic at first, but gradually warms to his ‘sister’.
Yet this family is full of secrets and lies. As the film progresses, revelations are made about each of the characters, who are not exactly who or what they first appear to be. Many of these revelations are deeply shocking, and make the viewer question their affection for this makeshift family. Are the couple more like Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett or are they modern-day Fagins?
As the story unfolds, Kore-eda manages to maintain our affection for the characters and keep the family unit together in a delicate balancing act. He manages to do so because, like a loving father with his offspring, Kore-eda is benevolent with his characters and ultimately forgiving of them, despite their many and obvious shortcomings. His warmth and humanity imbue every film he makes, and Shoplifters just might be the acme of his compassionate mindset.
The central performances are superb and the family members work as a brilliant ensemble, but for me the outstanding performance was that of Sakura Ando. There is a scene on the beach when Granny tells her she is beautiful, and she is, but at the start of the film she is a scowling presence, with her mouth constantly turned down. As her defences tumble and her true character is revealed, her beauty shines through.
Kore-eda has created a contemporary parable about what it is to be a family. He shows that the family we are born into may not be the one we should necessarily remain in and that the family we choose – or which chooses us – could be a path to love.