Don’t be fooled by the friendly-looking family portrait (above) featured in the movie poster – there is more than meets the eye. Shoplifters, the latest movie by Japanese auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda, is an M18 film which does serious weightlifting in exploring the idea of closeness in familial relationships. As winner of this year’s Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Shoplifters is more educational than entertaining, and definitely deserving of a place in the Kore-eda hall of fame.

Osamu (Lily Franky) and Shota (Kairi Jo) go shoplifting at a supermarket. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

Osamu (Lily Franky) and Shota (Kairi Jo) go shoplifting at a supermarket. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

The film opens with what appears to be a father/son pair working seamlessly to pilfer daily necessities inside a supermarket. On their way home, they notice a little girl sitting outside her apartment in the cold, starving, and they take her home. At a dilapidated traditional Japanese house, a woman who appears to be a mother, clothes her; another shows sisterly concern for her; an elderly grandmother teaches her to lick salt to curb bedwetting; the father feeds her; the boy takes her under his wing.

Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is offered a croquette on her first night with her new family. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is offered a croquette on her first night with her new family. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

[Warning: Spoilers ahead.]

Should you walk into the cinema only after the girl has been brought home, you wouldn’t realise until much later that none of these family members are biologically related to one another. While at first one might think that the six are bonded out of practicality, it becomes apparent that they genuinely enjoy each other’s company and share a great deal of emotional closeness, even more so than with their own kin. This leads Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), the “mother”, to suggest that it’s better to be able to choose one’s family than to be born into it.

The family has dinner together every night. In this scene, they're having hotpot in winter. Credit: Golden Village Pictures

The family has dinner together every night. In this scene, Yuri is watching them eat hotpot and is waiting to be invited. Credit: Golden Village Pictures

Just a regular family out for a day of fun at the beach. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

Just a regular family out for a day of fun at the beach. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

But if you’re expecting a heartwarming family comedy like Kore-eda’s 2013 film Like Father, Like Son, you have to be warned its pitch is closer to Nobody Knows (2004), a depressing drama film based on an actual child abandonment case which made headlines in Japan in 1988. Like Nobody Knows, Shoplifters confounds viewers’ expectations. It has no Dickensian ending, no poetic justice, no triumph. Its plot is propelled the way life happens – complex motives fuelling unpredictable actions, which in turn lead to rather predictable consequences.

The children are never told that they need to shoplift in order to earn their keep - it's implicitly understood that they need to do it in order to survive. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

The children are never told that they need to shoplift in order to earn their keep – it’s implicitly understood that they need to do it in order to survive. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

Shota's encounter at this particular shop is the pivotal turning point for the movie. (Credits: Golden Village Pictures)

Shota’s encounter at this particular shop is the pivotal turning point for the movie. (Credits: Golden Village Pictures)

That’s not to say that Shoplifters is a film that needs to be endured and not enjoyed. Kore-eda intersperses darkness with lighthearted moments, and his choice of cast is spot on. Lily Franky reprises his role from Like Father, Like Son as a ne’er-do-well who plays off his goofiness with a surprising range of emotional sensitivity. The two children are a wonder to watch, Yuri’s (Miyu Sasaki) taciturn wariness being the perfect foil to Shota’s (Kairi Jo) vivacity. The other actors’ performances are no less riveting – Sakura Ando’s turn as Nobuyo is especially heartfelt, sans the usual histrionics and sappiness that come with playing mother.

Nobuyo works at a laundromat to make ends meet. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

Nobuyo works at a laundromat to make ends meet. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

Yuri, Osamu and Shota walk home after successfully stealing half a dozen expensive fishing rods. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

Yuri, Osamu and Shota on their way home after successfully stealing half a dozen expensive fishing rods. Shota storms off after Osamu praises Yuri for her part in the theft. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

Despite all of them basically being criminals, it is apparent that they are not depraved. They, in fact, fill in their surrogate roles more spectacularly than a bona fide family member. Shota, the boy, was rescued from suffocating inside a car parked at the carpark of a Pachinko parlour. Yuri is a victim of physical, mental and emotional abuse at the hand of her own parents, who confess that they never wanted her anyway. As for Nobuyo and Osamu (Lily Franky), they do their part as parents not for the sake of redemption, but simply because they can relate to the children’s pain and want.

Once Yuri has decided to stay, Nobuyo burns the red dress the little girl left home in. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

Once Yuri has decided to stay, Nobuyo burns the red dress the little girl left home in. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

For some reason, Aki and her step-grandmother can relate to each other superbly. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

For some reason, Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) and her step-grandmother can relate to each other superbly. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

And relating – isn’t that how the word “relative” came about anyway?

It’s hard for the viewer to not feel empathy for this fictive kinship, as the backstory for each character slowly unfolds. For all the talk that this film is “gut-wrenching”, there wasn’t a scene which turned on the waterworks for me – I think that it was intentional, Kore-eda simply allowing the latent wretchedness of the whole situation underpin even seemingly comical scenes. It all feels so real, Shoplifters could well be a documentary.

Aki, who ekes out a living as a sex worker, seeks intimacy in her own way. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

Aki, who ekes out a living as a sex worker, seeks intimacy in her own way. (Credit: Golden Village Pictures)

Yuri watches helplessly as Shota is apprehended at the end. (Credits: Golden Village Pictures)

Yuri watches helplessly as Shota is apprehended at the end. (Credits: Golden Village Pictures)

Osamu saying goodbye to Shota. (Credits: Golden Village Pictures)

Osamu saying goodbye to Shota. (Credits: Golden Village Pictures)

As the two-hour film draws to close, the final scenes seem to play out even more slowly, like a long-drawn, painful goodbye. If that was intentional, Kore-eda got what he wanted: He won the Golden Palm, and I’m still thinking about the shoplifters.

Because, you see, if you ever wished that you could pick and choose your family, you’d be able to relate.

Catch the Palm d’Or 2018 winner Shoplifters at the cinema today.

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