A family of grifters (not all blood relatives) who live by stealing can win your heart in the touching “Shoplifters,” a film by skillful Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-da. It was showcased at the 2018 New York Film Festival and the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and is now in commercial release. It also won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
We see the mode of operation early on. The middle-aged Osamu (Lily Franky), and 10-yeer-old Shota (Kairi Jyo), signal to each other to facilitate stealing from a grocery store, thus helping to sustain life in the poor flat where they exist. Osamu’s partner is Nobuyo, portrayed by Sakura Ando) and “Grandma” is played by Kilin Kiki. OsAmu and Nobuyo also struggle in low-paying jobs. Grandma is collecting the pension of her late ex-husband. There is also a daughter, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who earns money performing at a strip joint. The group will soon have an addition.
In a moving moment, Osamu and Shota spot a pitiful little girl, cute four-year-old Juri (Miyu Sasaki), alone on a neighborhood balcony and shivering in the cold. They decide to take her back with them to where they live. Marks on her body indicate that she has been abused by her parents, so a decision is made to keep and take care of her as another mouth to feed rather than return her to her life of abuse.
With Juri gone missing, the situation escalates into an accusation of kidnapping. Of course, that was not the intent, but good intentions can morph into trouble.
Kore-eda is masterly in the portrait he paints of his characters and their struggle to exist happily in the face of their poverty. He elicits sympathy as well as builds suspense and makes us care for what happens to them. By focusing on these individuals, he also shows them against the background of life about them and the pathos of people being marginalized in an affluent society.
The juxtaposition comes across as a salute to the courage of those who struggle to find the means to survive but also show compassion for an abused little girl at risk to themselves. “Shopifters,” reminiscent of the post-war Italian neo-realism, ranks high among the superior films of the year. A Magnolia Pictures release. Reviewed November 23, 2018.