Delicate business is being transacted in this soft-spoken, cinematic treasure from Hirokazu Kore-eda, the Japanese master behind films like Nobody Knows, Like Father, Like Son and After the Storm. Still, Shoplifters made a big noise at the Cannes Film Festival in May, going home with the Palme d’Or — and you only need to watch this quietly devastating gem to see why. Set in a residential, non-touristy part of Tokyo, his latest focuses on a family crowded together in a ramshackle house. They seem like any other affectionate, dysfunctional clan, except for its main source of income, which is petty theft. In the opening scene, Kore-eda shows us Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky, a spirited life force) and his preteen son, Shota (Jyo Kairi), lifting items from a grocery store. Their cold calculation does not indicate a lack of warmth. Spotting a little girl locked out of her apartment and freezing on a balcony, they decide to take her home and feed her like a stray cat.
For this adorable five-year-old called Yuri (Sasaki Miyu), the Shibata home offers a solace she’s never known. The burn marks on her arms indicate serious abuse. At first, Osamu’s laundress wife, Nobuyo (Ando Sakura), resists taking in another mouth to feed from the family’s pot of simmering noodles. Plus: It’s kidnapping. But the woman soon comes around, cutting Yuri’s hair and renaming her Rin. Grandma Hatsue (the excellent Kiki Kirin who passed away in September), also votes yes — which counts double, since it’s the old woman’s pension that tides the group over during lean times. Like, for example, when an injury on a construction job sidelines Osamu, or when a younger sister, Aki (Matsuoka Mayu), doesn’t earn enough performing on-demand sex shows at a local strip club.
Kore-eda takes pains to show how this disparate group finds a nurturing love in the confines of their cramped quarters. With no room to move around, it’s amazing that Osamu and Nobuyo manage to squeeze in time for sex, which they finally do in a scene of moving and exquisite eroticism. It’s not long before Rin is inducted into the family’s shoplifting business, proving a natural at the game. That is, until something goes horribly wrong and the law comes looking for her.
The police search is a rare moment of overt melodrama for Kore-eda, whose films move at a deliberate pace that has brought comparisons to the gentle genius of Yasujirō Ozu. But this is a filmmaker dedicated to going his own way and there’s more surprises to come in an ending that enriches the film’s enveloping mystery. The less you know about the shifting plot of Shoplifters before you see it, the better. But the story Kore-eda constructed out of a news story transcends local politics. The filmmaker’s critique of labor conditions in Japan, where Osamu notes, “everyone gets a bit poorer by the day,” is all too easy to apply to other countries. Above all, the director is a humanist, attuned to the interactions of people that define them as a unit within a larger society. And in Shoplifters, which has the makings of empathetic, enduring classic, Kore-eda examines the nature of what makes a family and how it stands up to poverty, prosecution and government neglect. It’s impossible to experience the deep-seated compassion of this film and not be moved to tears.