Winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival is, in artier circles, more prestigious than the Academy Award. It represents the winning film out of an official selection that’s notoriously difficult to get into in the first place. Some Palme d’Or winners are grand, sweeping works of high cinema; some are politically searing; and others still are tiny, well-observed character dramas. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters is one of the humbler winners in recent memory – and that begins with its protagonists.
Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) lives with his family in a small apartment and in poverty, relying mostly on the grandmother’s pension to survive. That money is supplemented, however, by shoplifting, with Osamu using his son Shota as a kind of Oliver Twist to his Fagin. One day, in the middle of a well-oiled grocery-theft outing, they encounter a young and seemingly homeless girl, Yuri, and bring her home without a second thought. Though it turns out Yuri does have a home, when the family discovers signs of abuse on her, they decide to take her in permanently.
This immediately raises ethical questions, and they’re questions at the centre of Shoplifters’ soul. Technically, Osamu’s family reasons, this can’t be kidnapping, because they’re not demanding a ransom. Televised missing-person reports don’t do anything to sway them, and they set about cutting Yuri’s hair and renaming her for themselves, justifying their actions to themselves as a rescue from an abusive home. Where is best for Yuri? With her genuine family, or with this second, illegal and unsolicited, adopted family?
Though it’d be tempting to paint Osamu and his clan as a cliched bunch of well-meaning impoverished saints, the family’s dynamics and activities grow stranger as the film goes on. For one thing, the ages of the family don’t quite line up – they’re all of different apparent generations, with no clear direction of lineage. Each one is involved in shady or socially frowned-upon business in some way – from Osamu and Shota’s shoplifting, to wife Nobuyo’s laundry-room thefts, to daughter Aki’s job in a peep show, to Grandmother’s gambling addiction. Their cramped home life is borne on the back of crime and desperation. In fact, the only thing that truly binds the family together is distrust and avoidance of the law – whether out of fear of prosecution, or fear of discovery.
Initially you’ll brush these strange details away as the movie kind of moves past them – but they definitely have payoff. Shoplifters isn’t a mystery, but it definitely has secrets to reveal as it goes on, secrets that unlock the meaning of the rest of the film. Its riveting third act provides revelation after revelation about this odd family’s relationships, history, and way of life. Osamu and family aren’t quite who they claim to be, in a legal sense, even though in practice, they’re never anything but themselves. That is: people who engage in some morally heinous activities, but always for reasons that fit a twisted kind of internal logic. Needless to say: your ability to empathise with these characters will be tested.
What is family, anyway? Shoplifters constantly pokes at conventional notions of morality, whether through the criminal behaviour of various family members, or the ways the family came together in the first place. Yuri’s adoption/kidnapping is only the beginning of the story. Osamu’s family structure could be seen as an unusual form of abuse, or it could be seen as an unusual form of support – there’s strange emotional pathologies at work here that confound and confuse at every turn. Ultimately, Shoplifters is primarily about what it means to belong and isn’t that what family means?
Shoplifters’ ending only puts the preceding two hours into sharper relief, offering no easy answers to its questions. It caps off a film full of honest performances, well-observed drama, and effortlessly-lensed filmmaking, whose understated nature almost does the themes a disservice. Shoplifters simply sits back, looks you quietly in the eye, and follows up every one of your judgements with “Yeah, but why?” about issues which in many cases, you’ll never have thought to question yourself.
Quite an achievement for a film that starts out as a guide to shoplifting. Maybe Cannes knows what it’s doing after all.
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