Great directors often unmistakably revisit familiar themes in their work, crafting a thesis, then an anti-thesis film that completes the filmmaker’s understanding of his obsession. For Thomas Vinterberg, it was the theme of childhood subterfuges in The Celebration, and The Hunt. For Hirokazu Kore-eda, it’s challenging the idea of family in Nobody Knows, and Shoplifters.
Shoplifters is a film that confronts the ambiguity of morals. In the film, we journey along with a group of obscure but genuine and likeable crooks to justify many of what society would consider as deplorable acts.
A family of five who call themselves the Shibatas are unrelated by blood. They reside together in a decrepit house and lives partly off of the pension of an old granny named Hatsue. The adults take up odd jobs, while the only child, Shota (Jyo Kairi), chips in by learning the art of shoplifting from Osamu (Lily Franky), the father figure in the house.
After a regular shoplifting spree, Osamu and Shota chances upon a girl who’s left abandoned outside her apartment. Without the heart to leave the poor starving girl alone, Osamu decides to bring her home. We would later learn that she comes from an abusive family and Osamu decides not to return her. The girl would go by the name of Aki, and she too, will learn to shoplift.
Despite being unrelated by blood, the characters function like a family. While they get by as a demimonde ensemble, they show politeness and care towards each other. At times, they make the effort to build happy and memorable moments, if not, they just try to get by everyday to be the best version of themselves that they can be. To no surprise, Kore-eda has strung up homely scenes together so beautifully to articulate that crooks can care too. In fact, one might argue that the outcasts decided to live together just to prove to themselves that they are capable of warmth and some good.
In one of the emotional scenes when Osamu was questioned why did he teach children how to steal. He plainly answered, “That’s all that I know.”
While Osamu and the adults teaches skewed values to the children such as “only children who can’t study at home go to school,” or, “as long as the shop doesn’t go bust, it’s fine to take from them,” they were only educating the children on the life skills that they know. The adults tell lies, and money comes first. All the grown ups have a bad past and possibly no bright future to look forward to, but at least they try to struggle for some kind of meaning in their survival.
Throughout the course of the film, the adults will try to ‘save’ and ‘help’ the kids but they will neglect to confront their own demons and can only live in the moment. For them, tomorrow was the furthest they could see. As for Shota, who is coming of age, he could see a brighter light at the end of the tunnel.
By the end of the film, viewers might be at a crossroads between societal and individual stances. Great stories always allow a thin threshold between wrong or right, leaving it up to the perception of the audiences. After all, in life, morals and values are intangible factors that we ruminate about, and battle against when placed in dire situations.
Shoplifters marks as a rare morbid family portrait in Kore-eda’s recent body of work. The filmmaker attributes the lightheartedness of his recent works such as Umimachi Diary and After The Storm to fatherhood. While those films could be masterpieces in their own right, we haven’t quite seen the darker side of Kore-eda in awhile now since Nobody Knows.