Shoplifters- Koreeda’s Triumphant Return to the Family Drama

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

There might not be a more talented living filmmaker than Hirokazu Koreeda. His movies are maddeningly consistent in style, tone and aesthetics. Of all movie makers he most resembles the greatest of any, Yasujiro Ozu, they share an attention to family dynamics and a respect for stillness. Koreeda’s latest, the Palme d’or winning, Shoplifters, expands upon his formula ever so slightly. Where his films usually follow an evening or an afternoon, Shoplifters charts the progression of a family of criminals over the course of a few months. This gives his themes space to breath, and allows Koreeda to display his most subtly affecting narrative thus far.

To call this family a group of criminals seems a slight disservice, they commit crimes, but they never seem malicious or rude, self-serving perhaps, but the intent seems aimed at survival. They are impoverished more than anything, the son doesn’t go to school, instead learning how to steal food from local shops. The opening sequence is a dazzling introduction to their lifestyle, the gestures, hand motions and glances that form their silent language. Each of the family members provides for the whole unit in unique ways, they all have jobs, even relationships but almost all have some aspect of manipulation or thievery. When the husband Osamu (Lily Franky) is asked by his sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) what he and his wife’s relationship is based on she infers that it was founded on money. If the question Koreeda poses is “what makes a family?”, then money plays a large role, but only in its ability to provide for each other.

What parents give to their children has always been a fascination for Koreeda, his focus not so much on material and heirlooms, but rather the traits, skills and faults passed down generation to generation. When the family stumbles upon a young girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) locked outside by her parents they give her shelter. They grow to care for Yuri and she becomes one of their own, not by blood but by choice, regardless, she becomes imbued with their habits and characteristics. The children inherit a surprising emotional intelligence, that gives the sons final sacrifice for himself, Yuri, and his guardians a particularly bittersweet note. Koreeda plays the brilliant balancing act of slowly peeling back layers of information about each of the characters, challenging the assumptions we have made about them as a group.

The only problem with Shoplifters, if there has to be one, then it’s that this film would be any other movie-makers masterpiece, but for Koreeda this is just another day at the office. If there’s an entry point into his catalogue, however, Shoplifters may just be his film to win over western audiences. This is gut-wrenching, emotional material, not to mention the glee of watching a director operate at his peak powers. Koreeda’s camera technique also took a huge leap forward in this film, where many of his compositions in the past have consisted of gentle, humble long shots (recalling Ozu) he finds a freedom in movement here.

So maybe there aren’t any problems with this film, it’s fantastic. In a two decades long career jam-packed with great films, here is another one to join Koreeda’s oeuvre. Despite finding familiar themes for himself to work with every time, he manages to move his style forward and Shoplifters is no exception. This is his biggest progression since Still Walking was released a little over a decade ago, where that film saw him at his most narratively clear-eyed, here he’s working at his most emotive and romantic. There is a scene towards the very end with the father and son that is simply Hollywood in it’s conception but the execution is completely straight-faced, realist and toned down. If you are new to Koreeda then don’t let the Palme d’or win over-blow your expectations for this, beautiful, resonant film, relax and enjoy as a master filmmaker walks you patiently through his characters world. Twenty years into his career Koreeda is finding new ways to reinvent his technique.