Sometimes shoplifting is just better

BEIRUT: “You can choose your friends,” Harper Lee wrote in her version of the old adage, “but you sho’ can’t choose your family.” The main characters in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” frequently circle around what connects them to the other members of their family, underlining the matter of choice for a group of individuals who are all orphaned in one way or another.

Kore-eda’s film is among the more celebrated movies to emerge last year and it is easily the most formally modest and unassuming of the works with which it contended. Having won Cannes’ Palme d’Or and a nomination for the foreign language Oscar, Kore-eda’s film has been assessed alongside Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum,” with which it shares a number of similarities.

Both films aim for the same part of the audience’s innards telling stories of poor urban families whose poverty pushes them outside the fence of respectability. (Labaki’s film makes use of the landscapes and occupants of Beirut’s poverty belt, while Kore-eda’s is based on a newspaper story.)

Both feature strong performances by unremittingly cute child actors. Both filmmakers have drawn on genre models. While Labaki and her collaborators penned a sort-of courtroom drama, Kore-eda revisits the police procedural.

The story opens with a middle-aged man and a young boy rehearsing their shoplifting routine in a grocery store. On the way home this chilly evening, they stumble upon a little girl who’s unable to say where she lives and how she came to be on the street alone at night.

The boy, Shota (Jyo Kairi), is skeptical but Osamu (Lily Franky) is a soft-hearted felon so he takes the little girl home.

Osamu and Shota live in a cramped house belonging to Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), the widowed grandmother, along with Osamu’s partner Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), Hatsue’s granddaughter. Nobuyo and Hatsue quickly learn the little girl’s name is Yuri and find bruises and burn marks on her body, suggesting she has good reason for not wanting to go home.

The household quickly falls for Yuri and she becomes part of the family. At first Nobuyo reasons that the little girl’s absence from the evening news means she’s better off with them. A couple of months later Yuri’s face does appear on television, her mother having belatedly acknowledged the girl is missing, making the other family members nervous that the cops will think they’ve kidnapped the youngster. It can’t be kidnapping, Nobuyo shrugs, if they haven’t demanded a ransom.

By this point it’s clear that Osamu and Shota’s shoplifting isn’t the only family eccentricity.

The main breadwinner is Hatsue, who still collects her husband’s pension. Though Osamu works as a casual laborer on a construction site, most of his money comes from the stuff he’s able to swipe from the job site and sell. Nobuyo has a job at a laundry, where she (among other co-workers) supplements her income with what she finds in the clients’ pockets.

When he’s not supporting the household, Shota reads avidly but he doesn’t go to school, Osamu having assured him that formal education is only for kids who can’t learn at home.

Aki has taken a job in Tokyo’s soft porn-slash-noncontact prostitution industry. Gran has exempted her from sharing her income with the rest of the household, and when Aki describes her job, the old lady only chuckles and remarks upon how lucky she is for having to do so little to make money.

Otherwise the embodiment of the nurturing grandmother, Hatsue’s casual amorality expresses itself in other ways as well. She too supplements her income occasionally visiting the adult children of her husband’s second family and walking away with a yen-stuffed envelope much of which she devotes to her gambling habit.

“Shoplifters” just started its Beirut run, having opened the Metropolis Youth Film Festival Thursday.

In its essentials writing, acting, camerawork - Kore-eda’s film has precious few shortcomings but it’s particularly masterful as a work of misdirection.

By the time Hatsue and her household have been introduced, it seems Yuri has been taken in by a family of blood relatives. While the story centers on the little girl’s integration into the family (she becomes part of Osamu and Shota’s shoplifting routine) it’s that process of assimilation that reveals the true nature of the characters’ relationship.

It’s in this the characters’ casual disclosure of what they know about each other - that “Shoplifters” resembles a police procedural.

Even as the characters are introduced, animosity is integral to their relationships. One motif of the film is Osamu’s effort to convince Shota to call him “dad,” which at first seems an expression of a son’s attitude toward his unreliable father.

Once it’s clear that Aki is neither the sister nor the daughter of Nobuyo, it’s evident that she disapproves of the couple, feeling they’re taking advantage of her gran.

One of Kore-eda’s accomplishments is that, despite the evident transparency with which he tells his story (the title, after all, is “Shoplifters”), the small revelations that make up the plot of the film do nothing to prepare you for the “big reveal” that’s a necessary part of every police procedural.

Another is the filmmaker’s commitment to realism. He creates an ensemble of engaging, amusing characters whose lives are equal parts deception and self-deception, then reveals the truth. The film has a denouement but Kore-eda resists the temptation to tie off all the arteries he’s exposed.

The police and social workers go about their work of punishing some crimes while, in their rush to put things back in order, ignoring others. The film itself makes no judgements.

“Shoplifters” is in limited release in Beirut.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 12, 2019, on page 12.




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