“Shoplifters,” new from Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, is a beautifully crafted, gently affecting drama about an unofficial family of petty criminals united by emotional as well as economic need.
Kore-eda (“Still Walking”), whose thoughtful portrayals of intergenerational relationships have been compared to those of Yasujiro Ozu, and whose humanist forms of realism suggest work by Ken Loach and the Dardenne brothers, explores experiences of struggling families and neglected children in this both sad and amusing gem (the Palme d’Or winner at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival opening Friday at the Embarcadero).
Based, like Kore-eda’s “Nobody Knows,” on newsmaking events, the movie centers on a low-income Tokyo household whose members, though not related, call themselves the Shibatas. They commit small-time crimes to make ends meet.
In the opening, middle-aged Osamu (Lily Franky), an underemployed day-laborer, enters a store with preteen Shota (Jyo Kairi), whom he treats fatherly. Using finger signals, the two make off with a backpack of goods.
Kore-eda establishes Osamu’s essential decency when Osamu and Shota encounter Juri (Sasaki Miyu), a 5-year-old stranded in the cold.
Concerned, Osamu brings Juri to the crowded apartment he and Shota share with Osamu’s laundry-worker and petty-thief wife, Nobuyo (Ando Sakura); a young sex worker named Aki (Matsuoka Mayu); and a grandmother (Kiki Kirin) whose income comes from pension checks and shadier sources. The Shibatas feed Juri and warm her up.
After learning, from the burns on her body, that the child has been abused, the Shibatas decide she can live with them. It’s not
kidnapping, Nobuyo rationalizes; there’s no ransom.
Juri, who appears to like her new home, becomes a capable thief under Osamu’s guidance.
Shota, meanwhile, worries that his “sister” is eclipsing him in Osamu’s affections. While unwilling to call Osamu “Dad,” he wants Osamu’s approval.
At the same time, influenced by a shopkeeper’s remark, Shota begins questioning the ethics of his thieving.
These and other ripples lead to a development that causes the makeshift family’s tenuous bond to unravel. Painful secrets surface.
Kore-eda’s disclosures of how the characters wound up together are sometimes hazy. Questions we’d like to see answered remain mysteries.
But the picture is nonetheless an absorbing, emotional sparkler. Skilled, nuanced storytelling and realistic pacing produce a graceful, textured, compelling portrait of a people with problematic behavior, shortchanged by circumstance, who interact lovingly.
Kore-eda presents bits of everyday life with wonderful humanity” Yuri loses a baby tooth. Aki enjoys a sweet rapport with a sex-parlor client. Osamu and Nobuyo, alone together for the first time in ages, make love.
Kore-eda alum Lily Franky excels in the role of the impish-looking Osamu, whose heart outperforms his Fagin-like qualities (though just barely).
Sakura has knockout moments when Nobuyo reveals long-buried truths.
The children, one of whom receives the final close-up, are, as in prior Kore-eda films, sad, natural and charming.
Three and half stars
Starring: Lily Franky, Ando Sakura, Jyo Kairi, Matsuoka Mayu
Written and directed by: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute