Just because you were born to someone doesn’t make them family. That’s the underlying premise of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters, a movie that keenly understands that the bonds we forge as humans sometimes transcends the blood that unites us biologically. The family at the center of Kore-eda’s drama, Japan’s choice for nomination in next year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar race, is not traditional in any sense of the word. Five of them, father Osamu (Lily Franky), mother Noboyu (Sakura Ando), sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), son Shota (Kairi Jo) and a grandmother (Sosuke Ikematsu) live in a tiny apartment together and struggle to get by. The adults manage to scrape together odd jobs from time to time, but they predominantly subsist on a combination of the grandmother’s pension and a healthy (as in frequency more than morality) habit for stealing from local shops to bridge the gap. One day they discover a young girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), seemingly living on the streets by their home and take her in for the night. Soon enough, she becomes another member of this ragtag family.
One of the joys of Kore-eda’s film, which effortlessly earns its plaudits long before the credits roll, is the slow and deliberate and completely natural unveiling that the family at the center of Shoplifters isn’t quite as it seems. There are these moments, the way they so willingly take in Yuri and how Shota is reticent to call his father “Dad,” that seem to hint at something deeper going on, a tattered corner revealing just a glimpse of the hidden picture beneath, but Kore-eda isn’t treating these moments like some mystery box begging to be opened. Life generally isn’t that dramatic, no matter what most movies may want us to think. Those living in such poverty don’t have the time or energy to confront the hidden truths that undergird their lives. It takes enough just to keep on living. So they soldier on.
Anchored by captivating performances by Franky and especially Sakura Ando, Kore-eda breaths so much life into the proceedings. Every scene, every shot, every moment, is crafted with such care and precision that it seems impossible not to be enraptured. The way he shoots their cramped apartment, the way he studies how they slurp noodles, the way he keeps his distance with wide shots during certain intimate conversations to highlight the dichotomy. It’s all designed to highlight and heighten the humanity of the piece. It would be easy to judge the Shibata family, to balk at their poverty or Aki’s work in a sex shop or the way the whole family (down to the children) learn the finer arts of shoplifting from local businesses. But Kore-eda’s far more interested in their actions and their bonds than some external moral code or set of parenting standards. A movie like this set in America would likely revolve around the constant threat of Child Protective Services swooping in and breaking them up (think The Florida Project, though Sean Baker’s film was equally nonjudgmental in its portrayal of life on the fringes). But Shoplifters, even as Yuri’s real family comes out of the woodwork and claims she’s been kidnapped, doesn’t give in to false tension for the sake of classical plotting. There are no boogeymen here. Just people.
The Palme d’Or is an award that has a mountain of prestige behind it, but doesn’t always point to a specific genre or quality that can be relied upon. That’s the result of a constantly shifting jury pool that has seen the likes of Fahrenheit 9/11, The Tree of Life, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and The Square to receive the award in the past two decades. But it’s tough to quibble with this year’s jury giving their biggest prize to Shoplifters, a film of such grace and attention and empathy. I had only seen one Kore-eda film prior to this, 2014’s Like Father Like Son (itself treading in similar subject matter pitting biological familial structure against social), but between that film and this one, it’s clear he is the sort of directorial talent that only comes along once in a great while. I have some catching up to do, but for those entirely unfamiliar with his work, I can’t think of a better way to begin the journey than right here.