★★★ / ★★★★
Although the subjects of “Shoplifters” are crooks, they are not defined by any one action, or thought, or intention. And just when we think we have any of them all figured out, we are reminded that there is no way to understand them completely because these are fully realized people who, one way or another, despite their age, have lived. Like real people, the characters in this sad and occasionally amusing story are complicated, they have secrets, they are motivated not always by what others see but sometimes by pasts so painful and tragic that the idea of straying from a self-destructive path is as impossible a reality as winning the lottery. The plot moves forward but the focus is on the inertia of its specimens.
Intelligently written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, it tasks the observer to appreciate the every day life of the subjects. It is a family composed of five: an elderly female (Kirin Kiki), two adult females (Sakura Andô, Mayu Matsuoka), one adult male (Lily Franky), and one boy (Jyo Kairi) who is about eleven or twelve. The curious thing is that they are not related by blood but by desperation, whether it be as a means to escape a former life, to battle loneliness, or simply to make ends meet. Their foundation is shaken—then strengthened—when it is decided that they will “adopt” a little girl, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), whose parents abuse her. It is not important whether we agree with the family’s lifestyle or decisions, but it is required that we pay attention and consider.
The family’s desperation is captured in overt and subtle ways: the types of food they eat, the state of their clothing, the size of their living space, the decorations and disorganization in their home, the way they respond when their job is threatened. But also take into account that their household offers happiness and comfort. I appreciated that Koreeda has the sagacity to simply allow the camera to capture small, seemingly insignificant moments like a daughter figure laying down comfortably next to grandmother who sews, a boy playing with toys in his fort, a woman taking a bath. Not every moment is designed to further the plot—necessary because we must acquire a taste of this particular family’s life in order to have a chance of understanding them.
The children are encouraged and taught by the older male to shoplift. The larger and more expensive the item, the bigger the risk. There is danger in the action but there is sense of humor, too. Heartfelt moments ring true. A standout involves a shopkeeper having known all the while that the boy has been stealing small knickknacks from his place of business. He has not said anything… until he notices that the boy is teaching his “sister” how to steal.
I wondered about this man, why he tolerated the boy’s indiscretion, possibly for months or years. Does he see himself this boy? Is he aware about the boy’s home life considering that the shop is located around the neighborhood? Is he friends or in good terms with his “parents”? Or is he simply a wise man who knows that the boy would find his way eventually? The picture makes a point that from time to time kindness, like a helping hand or a guiding force, juts out from where you least expect it.
“Shoplifters” is filled with potential situations from which superficial drama could grow. Koreeda avoids them because he is not interested in hyperbole but rather the poetry of life that so happen to be told through this particular family. It is one of those films that is difficult to describe because an argument can be made that not much happens on the surface. Like the dried up small pond situated within the family’s place of living, it is teeming with life and activity should you bother to look a little closer.