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Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku)

Whoops, Koreeda made a perfect movie.

So many films are about families, or at least say they are. Everything from romantic comedies to the MCU to horror to whatever nonsense animated children’s fantasy is terrorizing theaters on any given week. But too often, the theme seems to be that no matter what, the family you were born into will always be there for you. There is no stronger bond, most cinema wants to argue, than blood. Once in a while, though, we get something a little more interesting. Shoplifters is about family, but it also more specifically leans into the messier side of what it means to belong to something.

Even as it opens with a tender, seemingly selfless act of charity and ends with a monstrous but almost imperceptible moment of cruelty – and the acknowledgment that forgetting is easier than forgiving – the film consistently explores different aspects of who this family is and what holds them together.

It’s easy enough to say it’s about a bunch of shoplifters who use their kids for their own selfish, criminal ends, but that’s hardly fair. The film never judges its characters, and even goes a little too easy on them sometimes. But it’s all in service of digging in and learning who all these people actually are and what they mean to each other.

So, who are they? Surprisingly, that’s actually pretty complicated. There’s a father, a mother, their two kids, grandma, and an aunt. They all live in a tiny, cramped apartment. The dad is a day laborer, recently out of work after an injury. They live off of the grandmother’s pension checks. But every interaction tells us something new, revealing secrets and hints as to what’s really up with this gang of weirdos. When the answers finally come, they only add more bizarre thematic layers to what we already thought we knew.

More than anything, this is a family who roots for each other. They want to get along, they want to teach each other and love each other and hold their little world together. But all families have rivalries and resentments, sometimes long-buried, and those have to come out, too. One of the best things the movie does is not let anybody off the hook. Shoplifters all comes down to an exploration of our own origin stories and how we become who we are. Towards the end of the film, one character asks a pointed question. Another character lies, and it’s obvious, and both of them know it. But life moves on. It’s in repeating the question later, pushing the issue, that grounds the characters again and shows us that all we’ve seen up to that point has been built upon that lie. It’s a little piece of family history that no one wants to talk about, since the reality of the situation is so seemingly sinister. But it’s always on everyone’s minds. It has to be. The way you get along with other people is to sometimes ignore a lot of things that might otherwise derail the relationship, if not entire lives. So, yeah, it’s complicated.

Shoplifters takes all this material that might otherwise have just been a goddam slog and implements an incredibly sweet and lighthearted approach. Much of the movie is made up of the sorts of day to day minutiae common to Ozu or Kaurismaki, just sort of following characters around as they go to work, or rob a corner store, or as the kids play in the park and run home in the rain. But each little bit is character-based, telling us everything we need to know about all of these people in every little thing they do, almost like a series of little skits that all nonetheless chug along and build towards an ending that feels inevitable but also like such an enormous narrative turn that you might not see it coming. Between the criminal elements of the story and the familial drama, you sort of know where it has to go, but that doesn’t make the details and the final set of reveals any less devastating.

To be honest, this movie kind of came out of nowhere for me. I’d been looking forward to it based solely on the premise, but knew almost nothing about the director. I never finished the only other film of his I’d seen, I Wish, and ran Our Little Sister at my theater a few years ago but never got a chance to see it. But now I need to go back and check out the rest of his stuff. Shoplifters is easily one of my favorites of the year. As I’ve mentioned in before, I live in Asheville, which is, sadly, not what you would call New York or Los Angeles (or Philly for that matter), so I have no idea if this movie will open in my town, but I’ve been surprised before by which titles get picked up and shown down here. So if you have the chance to see Shoplifters, take it. It’s not like anything else that we’ve seen this year, almost a throwback to the Japanese cinema of the ’50s and ’60s. It’s also almost the exact opposite of one of my other favorites of the past few years, The Pleasure of Being Robbed, which tells a similar story but comes to a radically different conclusion about itself.

Hirokazu Koreeda is getting into some emotional territory that it takes time to explore. At two hours, the film is exactly as long as it needs to be, which is a relief since more often than not most dramas find a way to drag starting somewhere around the ninety minute mark. But the film is such a unique piece of filmmaking, weaving in and out of those little moments while always driving in a straight line, that you always know Koreeda is in control of his material and knows exactly where he’s going. It’s not always pretty but, as Shoplifters would argue, it’s worth it.

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