Lost souls form a family in the great Japanese drama Shoplifters

click to enlarge "Many of the film's conflicts are resolved in silence, or when characters are alone, so that only we know what they're thinking and feeling."
"Many of the film's conflicts are resolved in silence, or when characters are alone, so that only we know what they're thinking and feeling."

In the films of Hirokazu Kore-eda, it's the things that aren't said that resonate loudest. They're about feelings left unexpressed, about the past regrets that still gnaw away at the conscience. The emotional heft of his stories comes not from incident or contrivance, but from small, sometimes imperceptible gestures between two people.

Consider the opening scene of his latest film Shoplifters, which won the prestigious Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival. In only a matter of minutes — and in few words — it beautifully sets up the strange world of its main characters. A man and a preteen boy are in a grocery store. They're communicating through hand signals, not unlike baseball coach shorthand. We come to realize we're looking at a complicated choreography: The man moves so that the boy is shielded from the prying eyes of the store clerks, allowing him to take products off the shelves and shove them into his backpack undetected.

They've obviously done this before. They're good at it.

We end up back at their cramped Tokyo apartment, where the man and boy live with three women, though the movie isn't explicit about how they're all related to one another. The man has injured himself, so he's on hiatus from his construction job. His wife works in a laundromat; a younger woman moonlights at a gentlemen's club. There's also an elderly matriarch, who cooks up the food that the man and boy have stolen for them.

A few nights later, they encounter a little girl who lives down the street, and whose parents abuse and neglect her. They take her home, feed and bathe her, and give her a place to sleep for an evening. There's talk about taking her back to her parents, or turning her in to the authorities, but it's brushed off. She's now their child.

They've also done this before.

Because these people interact like a family, we immediately assume they are a family. And yet a sense of doubt begins to creep in. Why does the boy have such a difficult time referring to the man as "Dad"? When the missing girl appears on the news, why do they change her name, cut and color her hair and start to teach her those hand signals? And why does the oldest woman regularly visit her stepson, who keeps giving her money?

We do eventually learn what has brought these characters together, and what we find out is difficult to reconcile with the people we've come to know — or think we've come to know. It's a powerful revelation, but it doesn't play out like a cheap plot twist or a dramatic manipulation. Kore-eda is too refined of a storyteller for that; it complicates our feelings, but it also, in a strange way, deepens them.

Kore-eda is one of the finest film artists currently working in Japan, and his movies tend to be meditative and Zen-like, reserved studies of loss, grief and the unspoken familial resentments that can echo through generations. Shoplifters is one of his more narratively straightforward efforts — it would actually make a terrific entry point into his filmography — and it recalls his great 2004 feature Nobody Knows, about a 12-year-old boy looking after his younger siblings when their mother walks out on them.

Like that earlier film, Shoplifters views the alien world of grown-ups through the innocent eyes of children, and shows how adults can manipulate a kid's naivete for their own benefit. When the man ropes the boy into smashing a car window and nabbing a purse, an act that violates the family's ethos about stealing, it snaps him back into the reality that his own childhood has been something of a lie.

I'm realizing now that Shoplifters is a difficult movie to describe, not only because its impact is tied up in discoveries that I don't want to divulge, but because it earns its final emotional wallops through tender, intimate moments that you simply have to see for yourself. Many of the film's conflicts are resolved in silence, or when characters are alone, so that only we know what they're thinking and feeling. In that sense, Kore-eda is among the most perceptive of contemporary filmmakers, and also one of the most compassionate. ♦

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