I left Shoplifters kind of wondering what all the fuss was about, but that’s on me, really. I mean, what “fuss”? Have you ever heard of this movie? It’s Japanese, and about a multigenerational family living together and getting by on petty thievery. And I fell into the embarrassingly simple trap of getting too easily impressed by the forty critics aggregated at MetaCritic.com, averaging to a “MetaScore” of a whopping 93. This must be one hell of a movie!
And maybe it is, and I just can’t see it for some reason? I’m not obliged to doubt myself just because of incredibly high critical praise, though. I don’t have to agree with everyone, damn it!
Besides, Shoplifters is still . . . fine. Would I insist that you see it? I’m not prepared to do that. Far too many other movies in theatres right now have actually wowed me in one way or another. Shoplifters kept me engaged, but it didn’t wow me. In fact, the plot turn that seems to be impressing so many others, where this family turns out to be harboring secrets that vary in levels of shame — I didn’t find it that impressive. I would have liked this movie more if it were just this unusual portrait of a family with a specific socioeconomic status in another country, how they lived their day to day lives, and that was it. Why the need for left-field reveals?
I also found it kind of hard to follow how everyone was related. There’s a sort of matriarch, “Grandma,” a sweet old lady living off her late husband’s pension; her son, injured on the job as a day laborer; his wife who has a precarious position at a laundry fallen on hard times; a young lady presented as her sister; a preteen boy presented as their son, although he is not yet ready to call them “Mom” or “Dad.” Early on in the film, young Shota (the boy) is aiding the man on their little shoplifting excursions at grocery stores, and on their way home, they find an apparently lost little girl, scratched and hungry, who they decide to take home with them and call her Lin.
They do nearly return her to her parents the next day, but when they overhear them yelling and Lin’s dad abusing her mom, they opt to keep her. Miyu Sasaki, the little girl who plays Lin, is adorable as hell. She starts learning quickly about how to work together to distract store owners in order to steal groceries. It’s not long before it turns out at least one store clerk is not as distractable as they thought.
Most of Shoplifters is rather meditative in tone, just a pleasant look at a downtrodden family that seems to be proving surprisingly functional. They clearly love and care for each other. They offer Lin a kind of love she’s never known. On the other hand, the local news has caught wind of this missing neighborhood girl. This scenario is clearly not sustainable. Their living situation even before finding her was ultimately untenable.
Writer and co-director Hirokazu Koreeda works in subtle moves, and until the plot takes that hard turn, small hints are dropped here and there about how this semi-makeshift family came to be. A reference to a sister “with a different mother.” A quick mention of the car in which they “found” Shota when he was much younger. Who is exactly whose parent, or in some cases where certain parents even are, is not always clear.
Shoplifters is not predictable, I’ll give it that — and there’s a certain satisfaction in a story that’s neither predictable nor particularly shocking. I was always interested in where these characters were coming from, if somewhat frustrated at times with a lack of clarity. You won’t be amazed by a movie this quiet, but then, not all movies have to amaze. I must admit, the more I think about this movie, I put it in higher regard. It’s very well constructed, but its incredibly thoughtful, measured pace and tone also renders it not for everyone. Even I am not likely to remember it very vividly much more than maybe a week from now.
I suppose if you have some direct connection to Japan or Japanese culture, Shoplifters would be for you. In that case, you’re likely to get a fresh angle on something already familiar. It’s a fresh angle either way, but when it comes to lasting impact, results may vary.