It’s a common platitude, the choices we make defining us. But what about those we don’t make? The country we live in, the class we’re born into, our family, etc. They may or may not define who we are, but they undeniably shape us. The choice comes later, when we decide to move away from them.
In doing this, is the action made stronger? Are the emotions purer when one sets his or her mind to go another path than what was bestowed upon them? And given a chance to make a swerve, would it be enough to make a change, more so, redeem?
Holding onto that little sliver of light. No, reaching, grasping for it. These are aspirations that require optimism — idealism amidst all. Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters emanates of this outlook. It makes us wants us to root for it, believe in it.
Set against the backdrop of Japan’s marginal labor force, Shoplifters delves into the lives of the poor but doesn’t dwell to the point of overwrought. Instead, a reversal of what’s often seen in family dramas, it focuses on the experience of simply trying to function above dysfunction. Dysfunction seemingly requisite given the restrictions imposed by class.
When Osamu (Lily Franky) and pre-teen Shota (Kairi Jyo), chance upon stray five-year-old Yuri (Sasaki Miyu), neglected and alone outside her house one night, they take her into their own cramped home for a hot meal. Taciturn, scars adorning her body, it’s easy to understand why Osamu’s wife Nobuyo (Ando Sakura) asks the child to stay longer. It’s not kidnapping if you don’t ask for a ransom, right?
The working-class Shibatas, removed from the film’s eponymous premise of “the family that steals together, stays together,” want simple things for their family. Osamu hopes that pre-teen Shoto would finally call him “Dad,” Nobuyo wants to continue caring for the Yuri — a kindred spirit whose scars she shares not only physically.
But what Shoplifters tells us is that choices can only go so far. Reality is often an uphill battle.
Fatalistic as it may be, the film posits that pain, experiences, whatever our baggage is, they are weights not only on us but on the wings of the Icarus that is our dreams. And that even if we get to fly, maintaining that equilibrium is delicate: forever moving, forever running the risk of careening or burning.
This emotional heft makes the film’s titular shoplifting an act beyond mere five-finger discounts. Rather than mere stealing, it is scavenging. It is rummaging through the discards, and — as cliché as it may sound — treating others’ trash as one's treasure. People included.
The film doesn’t use the thievery moralistically either — a “sin” to justify some sort of comeuppance. Nor does it use it to present amorality in its characters. Instead, it is an act for sustenance. This need transcends the physical for the Shibatas. It is a genuine longing. It is a hunger for stability, love, connection, for a family they could call their own. It is something they are willing to sacrifice for, even if it means five turned six people living in a stuffed studio apartment, or losing a job to protect another.
The test of love is sacrifice. And given the living situation of the Shibata family, the lengths its members would still go to for one another — bolstered by the acting performances — deepen the genuineness the film makes us feel of that love. (Or as Shoplifters puts it, the “connection by their hearts.”)
Ando Sakura especially, as she ferries us to great emotional heights with monologues that fluctuate between weary restraint and opening the floodgates of repressed pain and longing.
But as another saying goes: the higher you go, the greater the fall.
Throughout three-fourths of the film, as mentioned earlier, we are brought to the point of idealism. Just like how the Shibatas welcomed Yuri into the bubble that is their crowded home, so are the viewers. Inside their house, love conquers all. The real world may not touch any of us. But as the hushed voice at the back of our head whispers: we know better. As good as things may seem, living in a vacuum may never be possible, and the bubble will have to pop someway or another.
In the last thirty minutes of Shoplifters, we get the final feather that sends our flight of fancy careening. The film’s twists and turns go beyond the medium and wrench audience’ insides.
But never preachy, loud, or reprimanding, Shoplifters is instead a “there, there,” an “I won’t ever say ‘I told you so.’” Even as it delivers the most heart-shattering of scenes, there’s a guiding gentleness to it, a warmth.
And maybe at the end of the day, that’s just part of Shoplifters' intent. Expose us to that feeling - not entirely optimistic (jaded even) but still holding on to some of that light, afar but not entirely alone, the comfort between the chaos. Because if family should feel like anything, shouldn’t this be it?
Review originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018. The film is now playing in select U.S. theaters via Magnolia Pictures and will expand in the coming weeks. Check local listings or the official site, linked below, for more information.