****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 4.25 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SEE IT. I thoroughly enjoyed this intimate yet deeply profound and philosophical film, but be forewarned, this is a foreign, arthouse film, so those with more conventional cinematic tastes should stay as far away from this movie as possible.
Shoplifters, written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, is the story of a poor family in Tokyo who rely on shoplifting and petty crimes in order to make ends meet. The film stars Lily Franky as Osamu - father of the family, and Sakuro Ando as Nobuyo the mother, with Kairi Jo playing their son Shota and Miyu Sasaki their daughter Yuri.
Shoplifters is a distinctly foreign film in that on its surface it may seem to the less cinematically sophisticated to be innocuously mundane and even boring, but to those patient enough to peer beneath that veneer of the ordinary, they are rewarded with the discovery of a sublime universe teeming with human drama and intrigue.
Shoplifters is an original and fascinating film that explores the meaning and purpose of truth, knowledge, family and the need for human connection. Like a Russian Matryoshka doll, Shoplifters appears to be one thing, but once you look inside another and another and another layer is revealed, and everything you’ve previously seen takes on a different meaning in hindsight.
On the surface, Shoplifters is a rather deliberately paced story of an ordinary family as they endure the suffocating nature of working class poverty in modern day Tokyo. This social/cultural narrative is insightful enough all on its own, as it is a profound statement on the cancer that is 21st century capitalism, where everything is commodified, including our humanity. But as the story progresses and more truths are discovered and revealed, the viewer’s perspective shifts, and the foundation upon which you’ve made assumptions about this seemingly simple family sways uneasily under your feet.
As more truth is revealed, the social commentary of the film doesn’t lose its impact, but quite to the contrary, it becomes even more profound. The film’s cultural critique gains a staggering degree of power and profundity as it adds narrative dimensions in the second half of the film.
Shoplifters forces us to question all of the assumptions we have about the things we know…or more accurately…the things we think we know. As the film shows, the rock upon which our own moral, ethical and intellectual beliefs are built may very well be sand. Shoplifters shows us that we are swimming in a deep and mysterious ocean and yet, as the saying goes, “fish don’t even know he’s wet.”
After I watched Shoplifters I kept thinking of the line from Oliver Stone’s 1991 masterpiece JFK, where one of the characters, frustrated with the challenge to his conventional thinking, shouts in retort, “but you only know who your Daddy is because your Momma told you so!” And so it is in our world of manufactured consent, incessant propaganda and unlimited marketing and manipulation where we are led around by our nose and suffer from an interminable myopia and narcissism. Like subjects in Plato’s cave watching shadows dance upon the wall, we all think we know what we know, but when we walk outside the cave we realize we know nothing…and have known nothing all along. In that way, Shoplifters, although it is the polar opposite in most ways as it contains no action and is very slow and plodding, is a philosophical cousin to The Matrix films.
Hirokazu Kore-eda, who has directed such notable films as Nobody Knows, Still Walking, Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm, has a deft and confident directorial touch with Shoplifters, as he never pushes the pace but rather lulls the audience into a false sense of security and suckers them into projecting their own bourgeois assumptions onto the story and characters.
Kore-eda’s masterful camera movement and shot composition draw the viewer into the family at the center of the story, as we share their intimate world we too become members and collaborators in their life of petty crime.
Kore-eda creates a stultifying sense of claustrophobia and a lack of personal freedom in this darker side of Tokyo, where much like in our current techno-dystopian world, privacy is a fleeting luxury. For example, Shota is forced to sleep in a small closet more akin to a coffin than a bedroom, Aki (a pseudo-Aunt) makes a living anonymously exposing her private life to strangers, and Osamu and Nobuyo can’t remember the last time they shared a moment alone together.
Kore-eda is one of the masters of Japanese film working today, and Shoplifters is a testament to his cinematic skill and storytelling prowess as it uses the intimate and unique working of this one family to tell a philosophically serious and politically insightful story of our troubled times.
The acting in Shoplifters is solid across the board. Sakuro Ando is exquisite and transcendant as the mother of the family, Nobuyo. Ando’s Nobuyo is at once pragmatic and ruthless but also gentle, kind and loving. Ando imbues Nobuyo with a deep and palpable wound (symbolized by a burn scar on her arm) that is forever a mystery but always lurking within her soulful eyes, that are keen enough to see the same wound in Yuri.
Lily Franky as Osuma is terrific as a man who desperately tries to be a father, but whose road to hell is paved with good intentions as he is only capable of, at best, making it all up as he goes. Osuma is a fascinating and compelling character, and it is a testament to Lily’s talent that he is simultaneously both a deplorable and sympathetic character.
Mayu Matsuoka brings a sense of wounded allure and innocent danger to the role of Aki, that in lesser hands may have been lost in the wash. Aki is the one of the group most naturally equipped to survive but also the one most vulnerable to being a victim to her own weakness. Unlike Nobuyo, Aki’s wound has no scar over it. Matsuoka does a wonderful job of creating a sense of melancholy and ennui about Aki that at times feels both dangerously combustible and also self-destructive.
The child actors, Kairi Jo and Miyu Sasaki also give excellent performances that feel genuine and grounded because they don’t feel like they are acting at all and the same is true of the grandmother, expertly played by the late Kirin Kiki.
In conclusion, Shoplifters is a film that subtly morphs and changes with every second you watch it, and as I have learned since seeing it, with every minute that passes after its over too. It is, in its own way, mesmerizing and hypnotic, enticing viewers into a story that appears to be one thing but ends up being another. I loved the film, but I love foreign films in general, and Japanese films in particular. If you are not a devout devotee of the arthouse, and in this case, the Japanese arthouse, Shoplifters’ deliberate pace, cryptic dialogue and unusual narrative will be much too much to endure. But if you love Japanese cinema or have a taste for the art house, definitely go check out Shoplifters as it is a fascinating ride, one that I’m not sure I have fully completed.