The subject of “what constitutes family?” is at the heart of Shoplifters – the latest film from Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes this year under the noses of more high-profile entries in the competition. Like earlier works, Nobody Knows (2003) and Like Father, Like Son (2013), Kore-eda explores blood ties in a unique, stimulating and ultimately surprising manner.
The story begins with what feels like a modern-day spin on Oliver Twist. Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) lives with his partner Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), barely surviving on their minimum wage jobs in construction and laundry. The only way they can put food on the table is to supplement their meagre income with stealing from supermarkets. When we first meet Osamu, he is with their young boy Shota (Jyo Kairi) in a grocery store, co-operating in a bit of thievery.
Making up the numbers in their fractured household is an elderly woman Hatsue (Kiki Kirin) known as “grandma”, who is still drawing from her late husband’s state pension, and the college-age Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), who works in a strip bar. To explain more of their connections would spoil the film’s final act, but suffice it to say, it’s not what you expect. The heart of the story gets underway, however, when Osamu comes across a shivering young girl (Miyu Sisaki).
Naming her “Rin”, they take her in and, Fagin-like, Osamu tutors her in the art of petty pilfering. Indeed, just as Charles Dickens was known for depicting the horrors of Victorian life for the poor, so Kore-eda offers a stark critique of working condition for the Japanese (as abhorrent as the zero-hours contracts in the UK, there’s reference to an initiative where workers “share” jobs and are reduced to half-pay).
Intriguingly, the film was inspired by Kore-eda’s recollections of a news report about how relatives in Japan have resorting to cheating, abusing and even murdering one another in extreme cases. The secrets in Shoplifters further explore such themes, where family ties can cut as well as bind. The final act is shocking, but also very saddening, in a film that surely deserved its top-tier prize from Cannes.
Shoplifters opens on 23 November. For more details, visit Thunderbird Releasing.
1. Still from Shoplifters.