The winner of the big prize, the Palme D’Or, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Shoplifters” is the sort of high concept movie you just know someone in Hollywood is going to remake – even as you pray they won’t.
The latest from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, the 2018 film – playing this weekend at PMA Films – drops us in among an eccentrically larcenous six-member extended family, all crammed into one impossibly overstuffed and tiny row house. We are introduced to the father (actor, author and Kore-eda regular Lily Franky) and pre-teen son (the remarkable, natural Jyo Kairi) silently teaming up to pilfer items from a local grocery store. Returning to the home they share in ramshackle coziness with a grandmother (other Kore-eda regular Kirin Kiki, who died soon after the film’s release), a mother (Sakura Andô) and young adult daughter (Mayu Matsuoka), it becomes immediately apparent through the clan’s casual interactions that nearly everything in the old woman’s cramped house is similarly stolen.
Things become complicated for this contentedly light-fingered family when father and son happen upon a young girl (Miyu Sasaki, possibly the most adorable child in the history of movies), silently shivering and hungry, alone in the cold night. So they take her home. Necessary and practiced wariness about their subsistence-level existence melts quickly, especially once it’s discovered that the little girl has signs of physical abuse on her skin, and practically without a decision being made, the little girl is added to the family and its daily routines.
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And here’s where an inevitable American remake would go wrong. Tone is everything, and it’s easy to see this minutely observed tale transformed into a serio-comic tearjerker, the event-filled tale of a family of quirky grifters and their capers. (Think the Showtime series “Shameless.”) But Kore-eda has made a career (in films like “Nobody Knows,” “Still Walking,” “Like Father, Like Son” and others, all worth checking out) of examining the true nature of family, parenthood, loyalty and the bonds that hold people together. And “Shoplifters” gradually reveals itself to be less about the crimes (some petty and some, as we eventually find out, much bigger) that tie this family together – and how the web of their interconnected motives forms a bond more complex, even noble, than we initially imagine.
Plus, Kore-eda is a visual director, lingering over images – a game of tag in a vacant lot at night, a trip to the beach, a father-son snowman in a dirty alley, the family crowded together to witness faraway fireworks through the slim wedge of sky they can see from their tiny back yard – that layer the story with a meditative warmth on top of the family’s disreputable daily routine. The doting grandma plays pachinko (and steals trays of balls when no one’s looking). The adult daughter works in a peep show booth, where the girl forms an attachment to a painfully shy customer she knows only as Mister Four. The mom and dad work in menial jobs, where phrases like “day laborer” and “work share” signal the various ways in which they’re cheated out of fair compensation. Meanwhile, the boy and his new “sister” form a gently adventurous bond, with the big brother teaching his sibling the ways of distracting store clerks and filching what they want – and the family needs.
It’s inevitable that the family’s unstable existence crumble, and it does – an event occurs that immediately spotlights just how tenuous their five-fingered home life is – but the film’s second half doesn’t collapse with it. (“Shoplifters” has a strain of sly comedy running throughout.) There’s tension, certainly – a late movie chase concludes with an act all the more shocking for how matter-of-factly it’s shot. But “Shoplifters” isn’t a crime film, or a caper dramedy, or even a tearjerker, although it’d be hard to imagine anyone not being affected by how the family’s bonds are snapped, one by one. “Shoplifters” is a study in the contradictory impulses that bring people together, in how a family is something we choose and how the underclass bands together in family units dictated by forces more canny – and sometimes more powerful – than mere blood.
“Shoplifters” screens at PMA films (www.portlandmuseum.org ) from Friday through Sunday, with an additional showing on Wednesday, Jan. 30. It runs two hours and is rated R, mainly for a scene of grownup (and affectionate) sensuality. Tickets are $9/$7 for PMA members and students with ID.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Ends Thursday, Jan. 24: “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes.” Time to get your blood boiling, as this searing media documentary traces just how Fox News founder and outed sexual predator the late Roger Ailes empowered your most bigoted and gullible relatives with nonstop propaganda.
Tuesday, Jan.29.: “In the Last Days of the City.” The debut film from director Tamer El Said follows a filmmaker trying to complete his movie about the troubled city of Cairo in the years leading up to the Egyptian revolution.