After the relative misstep of The Third Murder, writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film, Shoplifters, marks a return to form. (It already won the 2018 Palme D’Or.) Built around a family of petty thieves, Kore-eda once again puts us in a detached position to study the lives of small people. There’s a bit more speed and sex here (believe it or not) than his last few pictures, but it’s Kore-eda’s contemplative form, well-established over decades, that proves most memorable.
To mention another Kore-eda film, Shoplifters works best as a companion piece to Like Father, Like Son (2013), albeit from a different perspective. Lily Franky recurs here as a jovial father figure, but his character, Osamu, is the head of a family without any middle class comforts to rely on. Along with his wife Nobuyo (standout Sakura Ando), her sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), grandma Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), and son Shota (Jyo Kairi), they carry out various scams. When the parents stumble upon the possibly abandoned child of a neighbour, the clan integrates her into their daily life, which is gradually revealed to be quite precarious indeed.
As he’s done throughout his career, Kore-eda processes all of this drama with a light touch, gently urging us to consider who these people are without judging too harshly. At its heart, Shoplifters is built on an absurd stacked-deck premise, one that topples over abruptly in the film’s final third. Yet Kore-eda’s control of the material carries the emotional weight right to the end; he almost steals a happy ending too.
Shoplifters opens in Toronto (at the TIFF Bell Lightbox), Vancouver and Montreal on December 21