Last year’s Cannes Film Festival jury, chaired by Cate Blanchett, awarded its top prize, the Palme d’Or, to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters. It was an uncontroversial choice, since Kore-eda’s features have been appearing on the international festival circuit since the mid-1990s, and his latest film was applauded by critics as tightly controlled, beautifully acted, moving, and clearly one of his best. There was, however, a lingering resistance on the part of some high-art cinephiles to Kore-eda’s coronation, perhaps because in the past he has shown crowd-pleasing tendencies, and because he lacks a signature art-house visual style, along the lines of recent global masters like Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien, the Dardenne brothers, Wong Kar-wai, or Hong Sang-soo. That he is considered by many the leading Japanese director of his generation may say more about the decline of that country’s film industry, once on a par with those of the United States and France, than about his own merit. Nevertheless, he consistently explores certain central themes, writes as well as edits his films, and is very much an auteur.
Shoplifters revolves around a group of poor people who have banded together through economic necessity but have come to consider themselves a family. There is Grandma, on whose pension checks they partially subsist; Osamu and Nobuyo, a middle-aged, marginally employed couple who may or may not be married but who (we learn in time) have bonded over their long-ago murder of the woman’s husband; “Sister,” who earns her living at a peep show jiggling her breasts; a twelve-year-old boy who was abandoned at a pachinko parlor and adopted informally into the family; and, finally, a five-year-old girl whom they find seemingly abandoned in the street, and whom they also take in. When the little girl is eventually reported missing by her negligent parents, the family rationalizes that they can’t be prosecuted as kidnappers because they haven’t demanded a ransom.
They all live and sleep together in one big room, Grandma’s place, whose dense comings-and-goings are deftly captured by cinematographer Ryuto Kondo’s restless, panning camera. Osamu, who occupies the father role in this unofficial family, is a construction worker who has been incapacitated by a job accident; his partner, Nobuyo, is seen working in a laundry, but when the boss decides that either she or her colleague must step aside, the other woman threatens to turn her in to the police for housing the little girl, and Nobuyo is forced to relinquish her job. Neither of these employment losses registers as catastrophic; they are shrugged off as part of the expected hard-luck pattern for those at the bottom of the social scale. Nor does supplementing their slender incomes by shoplifting make them anything like hardened criminals; they are simply trying to get by. Osamu has taught…
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