In one particular shot, the family central to the narrative look up into the night sky, inspired to catch a glimpse of the overhead fireworks; filmed from above, their warmth radiates in the midst of a nocturnal backdrop. A flickering flame. In this moment, only they exist. Actually, Koreeda shows very little concern for anything outside of this small circle of dependent, lovable lost ones throughout. They are less the focus of the film than they are the film itself. The Japanese filmmaker has always allowed his characters to lead his narratives into the unknown, and here he powerfully confirms a prerequisite of his cinema: the lives of his characters will refuse to end with the narrative. When the credits roll, they insist on leaving with us.
Walking down a dimly-lit street, Osamu (Lily Franky) and his son Shota (Jyo Kairi) spy a young girl sleeping outside in the cold. In sympathy, they take her back home with them to offer warmth, hot food and a glimpse of the family-unit in all of its subtle beauty. Feeling that same warmth from the evidently mistreated victim of unloving parents, the family decide to disguise her and give her a new name, nurturing Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) as their very own.
Koreeda is a rather traditional filmmaker, and has been likened highly to that of Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, Late Spring), perhaps the greatest director ever to have devoted his life’s work to the central exploration of the family concept. Both favour formalism, and the voice behind Shoplifters has long served a similar fascination with capturing the essence of the universal theory of family. Similarly, there is a shared devotion for inspecting the coexistence of traditional values and conflicting modernity, and how these two have resulted in a difficult, nevertheless honest equilibrium. There is struggle, sadness, and conflict, but none can diminish the moments of gorgeous authenticity which are dispersed throughout this socially-conscious tale.
(L-R) Japanese actress Mayu Matsuoka, Japanese actor Kairi Jo and Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda attend a meeting of film 'Shoplifters' during the 21st Shanghai International Film...
What makes a father? A mother? A Daughter? A family? Such questions are at the very heart of the narrative. Koreeda and the cast manage to attain a real sense of purity. Scenes feel extended beyond their cinematic lifespan, and as a result of this a certain truth is achieved. It’s not blood that matters, but your treatment of one another. Yet, even still, no certainty is offered, and certainly no easy answers. However, what is communicated is that the actions of our past - even if selfish - cannot accurately define the present relationships which such actions helped create. There is a moral ambiguity which stems from almost every single character, and as the narrative begins to grow in complexity we are confronted with a series of beliefs, and urged to reconsider our ethics through the lens provided by this family.
Loneliness is impressively conveyed; a scene reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas brilliantly elaborates on the theme, which involves one of the family members working in the sex industry. It’s an incredibly powerful scene - creative and thought-provoking. Alas, there are many moments which can be so aptly described. For much of the film the family members are shot together, often altogether or in two-shot. Shot construction is very important, as it allows Koreeda to convey separation so literally, and so clearly as to maintain formalist aesthetic but also to avoid falling into the trap of demonstrative tedium. When one of the protagonists is alone in shot, there is an immediate panic and a sense of disturbance; this is crucial.
The ending is likely to leave most shaken. As in real life, we are offered a painful reality, but also an encouraging metaphor, depending on your interpretation. During the film’s final act, a character begins to make a snowman. It’s a poignant moment, perhaps suggesting that it’s what we encounter as we roll along through this difficult life that forms us. Just as this analogy would propose, Shoplifters is a film that will catch you off guard. It leads the audience into some eerily dark territory, all the while asking you to weigh in according to your own moral compass. Many will leave the film having learnt something. For this - and many other reasons - the film is a triumph. Viewers will try their best to hold back from shedding a tear, sometimes from a result of beauty, and others, a crushing sense of injustice; both genuine.
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