You watch master Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest, about an impoverished family living in Tokyo, enchanted by its quiet moments. But just as it lulls you, it also devastates. Like all of Kore-eda’s movies, the family briefly becomes your own. Rating: 4 stars out of 4.
Every one of master Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s movies breaks your heart in a different way. “Nobody Knows” introduced us to a group of children abandoned by their mother, creating their own feral world. “Like Father, Like Son” showed us the devastation of two families who learned, several years after the fact, that their beloved sons were switched at birth. “I Wish” was the story of a preteen who dreamed of reuniting his divorced family; “After the Storm,” likewise, briefly brings together a father and son too long apart.
Like all of these, Kore-eda’s latest film “Shoplifters” is about a family, but a very different kind. The impoverished Shibatas live in cluttered, cramped contentment in Tokyo; dad Osamu (Lily Franky) and young son Shota (Jyo Kairi) help out by stealing from grocery stores, which they do with a choreographed expertise. When they find a tiny girl (Miyu Sasaki) shivering and neglected outside her parents’ home, they steal her, too; absorbing her into their household, which also includes mother Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) and older sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka).
For much of its first half, “Shoplifters” feels like a loose, unconventional portrait of a happy family, as we watch little Yuri, pigtails flying, running after her new big brother, or Osamu and Shota gleefully chasing around together in an abandoned lot, or Osamu and Nobuyo enjoying a rainy afternoon together. That grubby home feels cozy, a shabby haven in a sometimes unwelcoming world, and there’s clearly love within its walls. But, as Kore-eda slowly and deliberately reveals to us, much of this isn’t quite what it seems, and by the wrenching late scenes of “Shoplifters” we’re asking a very big question: What, exactly, makes a family?
You watch “Shoplifters” enchanted by its quiet moments: a crayoned drawing of a family laughing in the waves; a blown-up shopping bag made into a makeshift ball, floating above the detritus of the apartment; a framed photo, briefly glimpsed, of someone no longer there; the comfort of a steaming dinner, however modest, on a cold night. But just as it lulls you, it also devastates; in particular, a scene in which a desperate Nobuyo tries to keep what isn’t hers, and a quiet moment in which a broken Osamu explains why he teaches the kids to steal: “I don’t know anything else to teach them.” A snowman melts; a season passes; and you realize that — like all of Kore-eda’s movies — the family in “Shoplifters” briefly became your own.
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★★★★ “Shoplifters,” with Lily Franky, Sakura Ando, Mayu Matsuoka, Kirin Kiki, Jyo Kairi, Miyu Sasaki. Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. 121 minutes. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Rated R for some sexual content and nudity. Opens Dec. 14 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.