Shoplifters / Hirozaku Kore-eda / 2018 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Flawless cast; Subtle family drama
Side Effects: High-concept machinations

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[Shoplifters plays throughout February at the MFA’s Boston Festival of Films from Japan.]

This year’s Palme D’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, Shoplifters feels like both an anomaly in director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s filmography and another of the subtle, well-observed humanist dramas he’s known for. That’s likely because Shoplifters chronicles the everyday pains and pleasures that come with the bonds of family, but this time it’s a makeshift family, a collection of isolated souls living on the fringes of society. This tension between their individual pasts and the shared connection that makes them a family is what animates the film.

Shoplifters opens with Osamu and his son stealing from a grocery store, their movements flawlessly performed as if ritualized. The boy, hidden from the store clerk by his father, even has a superstitious series of gestures he executes just before he pockets the goods, a kind of sign of the cross. Kore-eda gives the sequence a light, comedic tone; despite its criminality, this theft is a shared moment between father and son, a fun outing.

It’s only gradually, however, that we learn that this pair are in fact not biologically father and son. The family they return to, consisting of a “granny” (played by the great Kirin Kiki in one of her final roles) and two younger women, aren’t related either. Nor is the little girl Yuri whom they quickly adopt into the fold, the child of a couple they overhear arguing and deem to be a danger to the neglected girl. Her introduction to the family mirrors our own. Though initially hesitant, she’s quick to fit in, won over by the genuine warmth and compassion these people share.

Kore-eda brilliantly captures this warmth and compassion through small gestures from his exceptional cast, using his camera to emphasize their connection. The way Osamu’s partner Nobuyo, for example, gently brushes Yuri’s hair speaks volumes to both of their need for connection, to give and receive love. Kore-eda makes particularly effective use of the clan’s cramped quarters that serves as their happy home. The children sleep behind a sheet hung under the kitchen sink, and nothing anyone does goes unnoticed, but the family enjoys this intimacy, sharing multiple planes within Kore-eda’s composed frame.

But all the time Osamu and Nobuyo’s makeshift family spend forging these bonds, reality is encroaching. The machinations that stem from the unconventional makeup of this family feels a bit high concept for Kore-eda, but I think he’s interested in precisely this tension. It’s as if the conventions of another genre have insisted themselves upon his small family drama. This ultimately leads to some interesting modulations to the tone he’s established, but also to the crystallization of his theme of what it is that truly makes a family. You can’t choose your biological family, Shoplifters suggests, but making a conscious decision to love produces the strongest bonds.

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