The Japanese film “Shoplifters” just won the Palme d’Or at the 71st International Cannes Film Festival. Over two hours long, I am glad I saw it. Ties that bind, need not be genetic is the overstory. Family life is changing, especially for the poor. Set in the make-shift homes of the struggling in Tokyo, a similarly make-shift family shows us a very untraditional family. The children often just picked up and taken where they are found before social services can take over. While no judgments are rendered, director and writer Hirokazu Kore-era does render an inside look at the underclass, its struggles, abberations, and its humanity.
The film’s title “Manbiki Kazoku” translates on my google translator as “people forever”. I like this title better than “Shoplifting” . Maybe “ Shoplifting Family” rings truer to this enthralling slice-of-life film. Hatsue ( Kirin Kiki) is the once lonely pensioner, who claims her husband’s pension as her own and buys a four-year-old child from an abusive and abused mother, but what we see is a woman who makes certain she does not die alone. We see her remedies for the bed-wetting youngster, her little gifts of the child’s favorite gluten-free cake, and her commaraderie with her sex-worker daughter. Hatsue has her gambling stash, but we feel that the other adults are “preying on her pension”. Her sweet smile shows us that she is happy however and grateful for those gathered around her.
The cast of “family members” are amazing in their naturalness. Five live in a shack built for one. Lily Franky is the dad, Osamu. We see him with we presume his son building snowmen, fishing, explaining sexual feelings, and aiding him in shoplifting techniques. Osamu is caring, warm, and good at face-saving. He rationalizes that when they take items from the neighborhood store, they are not stealing because the items don’t belong to anyone.
Osamu’s wife, Nouyo ( Sakura Ano) is more street smart, funny, practical, and works pressing clothes. She has no problem pocketing small items left in the pockets of her customers. She believes that if you are not loved you don’t grow up caring for others. She renames the four-year-old Juri, Lin, cuts her hair and burns her old dress in a ritual-like cover-up. Meanwhile, the tv reports of the missing girl ,now gone two months, without a missing person’s report being filed. Nouyo hugs Lin tightly and traces her burn scars with her fingertips. She shows Lin her own similar scars .
Aki is the fourth adult in the family. Aki, (Mayu Matsuoka ) works as a performer in a peep show where clients’ faces are not seen. She and her colleagues dress and undress for the pleasure of their equally lonely patrons. Deep and tangled roots in the breakdown of traditional families are given a lustful route, too. The philosophical Aki voices that “we all get our turn with death.”
As usual, the children are the most affecting. The eleven-year-old Shota ( Jyo Kairi), who we first see with Osamu pocketing small bags of food, draws us in with fist bumps and expectations. The neighborhood shopkeeper knows how slick Shota is as he manneuvers between reflective mirrors and the eyes of other patrons. He offers him candy, and whispers that he should not allow his young sister to steal. Train rides, cookies, cloud shapes, and belching games return Shota to his innocence.
The family dissolves when authorities step in. Osamu and Nouyo tell Shota that he was found in a red car alone at a gambling casino. Shota ends up in a group home, but visits Osamu. In a touching scene, he asks if Osamu tried to run away without him. Osama says, “Yes, I am sorry. I’m not your Dad from now on.” Shota lies and says, “ I got caught on purpose”. The face-saving does not keep the power of love away as the train leaves the track and Osamu runs after it yelling Shota’s name. It is heart-wrenching.
Miyu Susaki is the young made-to-order sister. She captivates at every screen entry. Her lying about her scars as “falling”, her glee at successfully pulling the plug on the merchandise sensor, and the slow, final wiping away of tears at the film’s end will make you examine what a real family is susposed to be.