On the way back from a shoplifting expedition, a man and a boy encounter a small neighbor girl outside in the cold. They bring her home for dinner and fussing-over by their resident "Grandma" (Kirin Kiki), then prepare to return her where she belongs. Bruises on the child's body and an overheard yelling match between her parents change their minds.
Most people would call the authorities, but the five occupants of this overcrowded Tokyo apartment, living on the margins of society, aren't most people. They keep little Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who seems perfectly happy with her new mom, dad, aunt, grandma and big brother, Shota (Jyo Kairi). When her new "parents" see her described on TV as a missing child, they cut her hair and change her name. The viewer is left to ask: Are these people kidnappers, saviors or something in between?
Shoplifters, the latest from acclaimed writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda (I Wish, Nobody Knows), won the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Meticulously shot fly-on-the-wall portraits of grim contemporary realities tend to be hits at Cannes, but some are a slog to watch. Not so with this one, which starts as a peek into a vital, hidden world and ends by packing a huge emotional punch.
Slated to open January 18 at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in Burlington and the Savoy Theater in Montpelier, this likely Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is worth catching. The crowd-pleasing elements of Shoplifters balance the documentary quality of Koreeda's storytelling, while the performers give the film a powerful spark.
We never forget that the couple who presides over the believably cluttered apartment, construction worker Osamu (Lily Franky) and laundress Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), have abducted Yuri from her parents. Yet they're full of genuine affection for their new "daughter" — and fun. While Franky livens the screen with sly humor, Andô captures it as a woman who swaggers through life with open disdain for the social norms and institutions that have never benefited her — until her past catches up.
This is a movie that puts marginal people front and center, depicting them as resilient reactors rather than victims. The larger forces that affect their lives remain mostly off-screen, evoked in dialogue about pensions and layoffs.
Koreeda practices strategic withholding in his visuals, too: When the family watches fireworks, we see only their rapt faces from above. Even when the story takes predictable turns, the stuff of conventional drama — police cars, dead bodies — remains just outside the director's frame, forcing us to focus on its emotional impact.
Likewise, the screenplay makes strategic omissions that play with our assumptions about what we're seeing on-screen. Every now and then, something happens to hint at just how much we don't know. But whatever impatience we may feel at the delayed reveals is offset by our sheer enjoyment of the characters.
Toward the end, a character suggests that the families we choose can be better for us than the ones we're born into. It's a notion Koreeda has explored before, but it has special poignancy in the world he depicts here, one of economic dislocation, depression and isolation.
These are the dark forces that lurk at the edges of the warm, rowdy family circle. Watching the abused, near-silent Yuri come to life, we root for her to take root in her new home. If Koreeda's film sometimes recalls a Victorian novel in its tactics — Victor Hugo would be proud — it earns every pull on the old heartstrings.