‘Shoplifters’ is a raw, poignant look at what makes a family

2018 has been a banner year for Asian cinema. Whether you’re looking at Asian American hits like Searching or Crazy Rich Asians; festival favorites like Burning or Angels Wear White; or the steady inflow of Asian classics to home video, including long-awaited Wuxias like Legend of the Mountain and Dragon Inn, Asians have made a major impact on the cinematic landscape, and this is without considering the wealth of Japanese animated films that made their way to the West, thanks to companies like Eleven Arts, Funimation Film, and GKIDs. It’s only fitting then that this year’s Cannes winner would come from an Asian master, celebrated auteur Hirokazu Koreeda, who may have created his magnum opus with the touching tale of a one-of-a-kind family, Shoplifters. Lauded out of the festivals and shortlisted for the Oscar, Shoplifters has the potential to be Koreeda’s breakout hit, and serves as a great introduction to the director’s aesthetic and tone.

Whether it’s the motherless children in Nobody Knows; the switched-at-birth families of Like Father, Like Son; the sororal revelations of Our Little Sister; or even the townsfolk lurking within his period piece, Hana, Koreeda has a fascination with atypical families, and how love, or the lack of it, can tighten or destroy the ties that bind them. In Shoplifters, we’re introduced to one of his most atypical families yet, a rag-tag group of castoffs, who come together to form a tight-knit, loving collective. Some are related to each other, but most aren’t. Some were taken from their families. Some find solace in the arms of another. The one thing they all have in common is they were all cast off from society; as one character so aptly describes their relations: they found each other. They rescued each other.

As the film opens, we’re introduced to our male leads shoplifting from a grocery store, an act which the father describes later, tearfully, as the only thing he knew to teach the child. It’s a brilliant choice, as we’re shown that, while these characters may have many redeeming qualities, they are far from virtuous paragons. Soon after, the two find a girl on the streets, alone, and decide to take her home for food and warmth. We’re then introduced to the endearing collection of misfits that make up the Shibata family: Osamu, the patriarch of the family, a playful day laborer; Nabuyo, Osamu’s wife, a tough, no-nonsense laundry worker; Aki, Nabuyo’s sister, working in the sex industry to make ends meet; Shota, a headstrong pre-teen, dealing with loss and the awkwardness of puberty; and the house’s matriarch, Hatsue, a pensioner trying her best to keep the family together (portrayed by the legendary Kirin Kiki). Though this family may seem normal at first blush, the films gives us closer looks at the lives of these people, along the way showing us the cracks in the foundations and rips in the seams. There are hints that things aren’t what they seem, whether it’s the Shota’s inability to call Osamu “father”, Aki’s all-too-intimate relationship with one of her clients, or two of the members referring to a dark incident from their past. Though it never descends into mystery, there’s always a hint that something ill is on the wind, even as the group gets involved in a kidnapping that may bring the whole house of cards down around them.

Shoplifters‘ structure is a delight, as Koreeda captures small, magical moments, tiny pearls of verisimilitude that add to the film’s naturalistic feel. A father and son playfully talk about puberty, two sisters giggle about their haircuts, a family sits back and listens to the sound of fireworks; these small moments might seem unimportant, but when combined they create a world full of living, breathing characters, and helps to make the relationships feel more relatable, which, in turn, makes this film’s heartbreaking climax carry that much more weight. By the time the film’s final moments roll, one character says only a single word, but that word carries so much weight, thanks to all of the moments of life and love we’ve seen build up between these characters, that’s it’s sure to even the hardened of film-goers into a blubbering mess.

The true emotions of Shoplifters sneak up on you. Though at first the gentle flow of the movie can seem interminable to some, as we slowly get to know this family and their travails, but like shadows falling as the day wanes, the feelings creep in around the corners, until, before you know it, you realize the tears have been falling for a good thirty minutes. Koreeda has created an emotional time bomb, which rarely if ever ventures into the worlds of manipulation or sentimentality, but simply shows us the raw, honestly drawn portrait of one the strangest, but most loving families, that have graced screens in some time.

Shoplifters is now playing the Austin Film Society, the Regal Arbor 8 at Great Hills, and the Violet Crown Cinema.