Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 09, 2018 10:46 am 
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Humanity under duress; unity in disorder

Koreeda's remarkable new film, one of his best, resembles his previous masterpiece, Nobody Knows, or Kurosawa's Dodaskaden, and may also remind you of Dickens' Oliver Twist with its school for pickpockets. But it's different from them in its focus on the ambiguous relationships of an ersatz "family" living outside the law and well below the poverty line. It clarifies some things at the end but leaves questions unanswered, its shifting, incremental story having taken up fixed residence in our heads. It teaches us things about poverty and morality under stress that most of us didn't know, or want to consider.

The "family" unit, who live somewhre in Tokyo, starts with Osamu (Lily Franky), a day laborer. His wife is Nobuyo (Sakura Ando). She works in a big laundry run like a factory. Her half-sister Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) strips for unseen clients in a sex shop. An old lady, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), is drawing her late husband's pension illegally, contributing it to the collective "family" and also collecting money periodically from relatives. A bright little boy they call Shota (Kairi Jyo) has learned to shoplift in coordination with Osamu, who may prefer larceny to work, not that he has good prospects. They all live together in a little ramshackle hutch.

In an early scene Osamu and Shota are stealing food from a market, and on their way home they come across Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a little abused girl left out in the cold. They take her in, and instead of reporting her to the police, as they should, they decide to adopt her. They feed her - eating being the group's most pleasurable shared activity - and they mend her wounds and later, Osamu and Shota teach her to shoplift.

But that description doesn't feel quite true to the movie's texture, because It constantly shifts around, weaving in other observations, remaining unexpected. What emerges is that everybody in the "family" pretty much has everyone else's back. And though Yuri is shy with everyone and about everyone (still preferring to remain, not go home), and Shota resists callng Osamu "Dad" or Nobuyu "Mom" as Osamu wants, simple family warmth pervades the little house.

Things change when the old lady dies and Shota gets caught stealing, bringing police and social workers in. Shifting gears then, the film provides snatches of interviews with each person. During the runtime of the film, "family" has gotten closer and closer, becoming like a real family, maybe better, because united by a simple life without cell phones or computers. But now things come apart. Masks fall away. It emerges that the adults were keeping up a front and concealing secrets, some of which were ugly. The "family" act enabled the adults to show perhaps a better side of themselves. But it was a sketch rather than a finished painting - set to self-destruct, like Banksy's little girl with the red balloon.

And thus Shoplifters becomes self-reflexive, a story about telling stories, a lesson in what powerful emotions a tinsel tale can evoke. Koreeda uses his background as a documentary filmmaker here, but he adds questions and statements that deepen his tale, retaining an offhand, observational surface.

Shoplifters won the Palme d'Or of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, the first Japanese winner of the top prize since Shohei Imamura’s The Eel in 1997.

Shoplifters / 万引き家族 (Manbiki Kazoku, "Shoplifting family"), 121 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes, and was shown in 27 other international international festivals, including the New York Film Festival, as part of which it was screened for this review. It was selected as the Japanese entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards. It opens in New York and Los Angeles 23 Nov. 2018. Metascore 93.

See Max Shilling's review and article on the film for Japan Times.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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