The idea of family as a simple, straightforward concept is challenged by the provocative but oddly touching "Shoplifters," the Palme d'Or winning film from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda.
Kore-eda puts his lens on a poor, multi-generational family, living on the seeming brink of homelessness in a tiny apartment somewhere in Tokyo. They sleep two and three to a mat and they're about to add yet another mouth to feed to their cramped settings.
Shoplifting is a way of life for the Shibata clan, who we are introduced to in a rather exciting and realistic little heist in a local grocery store between father, Osamu (Lily Franky) and son, Shota (Kairi Jo). Osamu feigns actual shopping with a basket in hand, while the tiny and crafty Shota works his magic fingers and perfect timing to drop microwavable udon bowls into his backpack. This is dinner for the whole family, mom Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), aunt Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), and grandmother, Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) included.
Their rationale? No one owns the thing yet when it's in a store. And if it's not sending said store into bankruptcy, why not? And it ends up being a kind of bonding experience between father and son, in addition to making sure they don't starve.
On their way home, in the freezing cold, they spot a very young, and underfed girl who is outside without a jacket. Osamu gives her food and takes her back with them. They discover marks on her arm and figure that this must be abuse. Her name is Yuri (Miyu Saski) and everyone takes to her like a little injured bird.
Walking back to the structure where they found her, they overhear Yuri's parents in a heated argument that only makes it clearer that this is not a home that has any love in it and is certainly not a place to return to.
"This is kidnapping," Nobuyo tells her husband Osamu. "No," he explains, "It's not, because we're not asking for ransom."
And, with that, this new, very tenuous chapter begins with Yuri as the newest Shibata family member. Shota has complicated feelings about this, feeling both protective of Yuri and also jealous that she's now part of this little shoplifting crew (in a great scene we see Yuri thinking fast and unplugging the tackle shop's metal detector, so Shota can run out with the merchandise). Suddenly shoplifting is not just something he and Osamu do, although you suspect that more is going on here when it's revealed that Shota refuses to call him dad for reasons we won't learn until later.
Things are getting more complicated, and this unstable situation becomes even shakier with every passing day. Yuri has been reported missing to the cops and is now a fixture on the local news. Osamu gets injured and can't even do his day labor job anymore. Shota is growing up. And Nobuyo's employment is uncertain as well.
And then a local shop owner plants a seed of doubt in Shota, telling him not to involve his sister, Yuri, in his shoplifting ways, and you realize everything is about to come crashing down. How it does is actually quite surprising and will challenge everything you thought you knew about this family.
Despite some odd choices (like having Aki work at a sex shop that recalls "Paris, Texas") that are never quite fleshed out in a satisfying way, "Shoplifters," overall is a slow but captivating burn that may leave you questioning your own hard-set ideas of right, wrong and family.
"Shoplifters,' a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some sexual content and nudity." Running time: 121 minutes. Three stars out of four.