Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” sneaks up on you. Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the movie begins much in the fashion of previous pictures directed by this fine Japanese filmmaker, who for more than two decades now has specialized in family dramas distinguished by their gentleness and restraint. This one starts out as a low-key charmer akin to his “Still Walking” or “After the Storm.” But then about an hour into this placid portrait things begin to unravel, undercutting the audience’s assumptions and steadily accumulating great weight and moral severity. By the time it ended I was a wreck.
Lily Franky stars as Osamu, the rascally patriarch of a ragtag clan living hand-to-mouth on the fringes of contemporary Japan. Occasionally he works construction as a day laborer while his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) toils away at a laundry. Grandma (Kilin Kiki) jokes that they’re “preying on her pension” while 20-something auntie Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) wears a schoolgirl outfit in a peep booth for cash. Everybody lives on top of each other in Granny’s tiny, cluttered flat, and when they can’t make ends meet Osamu brings 10-year-old Shota (Kairi Jyo) to the market for some tag-team petty thievery. Using hand signals and secret codes, they turn shoplifting into a children’s game that I gotta admit looks like a lot of fun.
One night on the way home from swiping shampoo they happen upon 5-year-old Juri (Miyu Sasaki) wandering alone and in the cold. She’s a slight, sad little thing, her miniature arms covered in scars and other telltale signs of abuse. Osamu and Nobuyo can’t bear to bring this little girl back to a home where she’s being mistreated so badly — and these aren’t the kind of folks who like to get involved with the police — so they decide they might as well just keep the kid until anybody comes around looking for her.
Nobuyo argues that it’s technically not kidnapping if they don’t ask for a ransom. But then this family has a lot of rationalizations, like young Shota’s belief that “school is only for kids who can’t study at home” and a general philosophy that stuff doesn’t belong to anybody yet when it’s still in a store. For a good while “Shoplifters” cruises along with a a breezy amorality, getting laughs out of the family’s various grifts and scams. (The source of Grandma’s “pension” is pretty priceless.) Everybody’s got some sort of angle, and this extends to the construction company turning its back on injured employees and a laundry forcing workers to split their shifts when it’s slow and bring home half the money.
In the late capitalist doldrums depicted here, the only honest, dignified work seems to be Aki shaking her moneymaker down at the sex shop. But Kore-eda’s affection for his characters does not extend to making excuses for them. Indeed, when Juri is finally reported missing a series of events reveal just how little we really know about this family we’ve been following for the past hour. “Shoplifters” parcels out tiny details of the past like a trail of breadcrumbs, not for the purposes of shocking plot twists but rather to re-contextualize our relationships with these characters. The movie deepens as it goes along.
The performances are uniformly excellent, with Kore-eda again demonstrating that he might be the best director of children since Steven Spielberg. But the real revelation to me was Nobuyo played by Sakura Ando, an actress I’ve never seen before who has a remarkable gift for simply being onscreen — the kind of unforced, comfortable naturalism some performers train their whole lives to try and replicate. Osamu might be the one driving the narrative, but it’s Nobuyo who has all the secrets, and we find ourselves studying Ando’s sometimes cryptic expressions for a key to what makes this family tick. There’s an incredible scene in which Kore-eda locks the camera down and simply watches her sit with Juri, an entire movie taking place behind Ando’s eyes.
The rap against Kore-eda is that sometimes he can get a little sappy, but the nature of this story brings with it an undercurrent of darkness that tempers the director’s more winsome tendencies. The final moments in particular manage to be emotionally overwhelming while steering away from schmaltz. “Shoplifters” is Kore-eda’s toughest movie, and maybe his best.