I’ve been trying more and more in recent years to include foreign films in my movie queue, keenly aware of the fact that all the good movies can’t just come from America. I know a lot of people give a back-patting ceremony like the Academy Awards a lot of flack – lord knows I talk about them in these reviews more than enough – but one bit of good they do is getting cinephiles like myself the incentive, nay, the opportunity, to catch some of these outside gems. And now that the nominations for the 91st Oscars have been announced, those up for Best Foreign Language Film get a little more of a release than they ordinarily would. Case in point, I took advantage of this by putting down my two cents to catch a showing of the entry from Japan known as Shoplifters. And boy am I glad I did, because I absolutely loved it. Though not in the way I ordinarily would. This is a film that sneaks up on you, presenting the viewer with realistic, well-rounded characters and lulling one in as it finds a narrative groove with a sort of slice-of-life approach. Then right about when the plot reaches an apex the film hits you with a thematic bombshell of epic proportions, not so much in the way of a twist, but an unravelling that will have you continually recontextualizing everything you’ve seen right up to the final shot. There were few films this past year that really delivered that kind of unexpected gut-punch to the cine plexus I hope to get every time, but this was one of them.
Set in Tokyo, Shoplifters follows the daily plight of an impoverished ostensible family living in what is essentially a glorified shack. There’s Osamu (Lily Franky), a day laborer; his wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando); hostess club worker Aki (Mayu Matsuoka); young boy Shota (Sosuke Ikematsu); and the elderly Hatsue (Kirin Kiki). With no one to rely on but each other, they do what they can to get by, often resorting to stealing from those so long as they can afford it. One evening they come across the toddler Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), locked out of her apartment in the cold. Unable to leave her there and doubtful her parents would notice, Osamu and Nobuyo decide to bring Yuri to their tiny home for the night. However, when Yuri shows signs of parental abuse, they cannot bring themselves to subject her to that and instead add her on to their family unit. There are some growing pains, but so long as they care for one another, they’ll try to prove that one’s upbringing is more indicative of character than origin of birth. Though there are outside forces who would say otherwise.
I’m almost at a lost for words for how to describe this movie. While there are certainly events that take place, there’s not a whole lot in the way of plot aside from that which is gestating in the characters’ heads. Sure, there’s some stuff toward the end that sees to resolve anything that was previously established, but where this one is going to get you is in its characterizations and how they intertwine with the themes. It kind of reminds me in a sense of the family comedy City Island – also fantastic, check that out too – in the way that each character exhibits their own dynamic personality and individual arc until before long they’re all intersecting into one gorgeous tableau. Of course, this one leans a little more into the heavier side of things, and will be more apt to ignite the waterworks, but the strength of narrative cohesion is all the same. Hats off to writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda for seamlessly inviting the viewer into this strange tale of togetherness and destitution, crafting a narrative that is so compound and yet tight that not a thing feels out of place. As it stands, I’ve got Shoplifters in the number four spot on my Ranked List of 2018, and seeing as it’s already February of 2019, that’s not likely to change. I’ve even got it higher than the film it’s ultimately going to lose the Best Foreign Language Film award to, Roma, which was a technical marvel in its own right. If this is playing anywhere near you, go see it as soon as possible, because it probably won’t be for much longer. Seriously, even if you only see one movie a year that’s not in English, make it this one.
Final Score: 10/10