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Stealing Our Heart: Shoplifters Explores the True Meaning of Family with Tenderness and Empathy 

click to enlarge MAGNOLIA PICTURES
  • Magnolia Pictures

Recently nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film category, Shoplifters, directed and written by brilliant Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows), is an affectionate, authentic and moving story about the importance and true meaning of family.

That may sound ordinary to some — and in some sense it is — but Kore-eda takes a complex and beautifully humanistic approach to portray the subtleties of everyday life and transform them into significant events. Much like the observational method Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón uses in his Oscar-nominated family drama Roma, Kore-eda allows viewers to watch things unfold as if they were standing quietly in the corner and relishing in every single tender moment with admiration and optimism.

It’s a skill that is even more evident since Shoplifters is — at times — so heartbreaking. The film tells the tale of the Shibatas, a poor Japanese “family” living in Tokyo, who are able to survive through the petty crimes they commit, like shoplifting. The film opens with father Osamu (Lily Franky) and his pre-teen son Shota (Jyo Kairi) stealing food from a local grocery store to share with the rest of their brood — daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), wife Nobuyo (Sakura Andô) and granny Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki), whose pension is barely keeping them afloat.

click to enlarge MAGNOLIA PICTURES
  • Magnolia Pictures

On their way home, Osamu and Shota notice Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a little girl they’ve seen in their neighborhood before, cold and alone on her porch. When they take Yuri to their place for dinner, they realize her parents are abusing and neglecting her. So, they agree that if they want to save her, they have to make her a permanent part of the family. It’s an illogical choice in a real-world scenario, but one that Kore-eda embraces unconditionally.

Surprisingly, the fact that this likable family unit has just kidnapped a child doesn’t register as immoral, which is a testament to Kore-eda’s ability to find a way for audiences to empathize with each character — characters whose real relationships are revealed later via Kore-eda’s familiar measured pace. Making decisions with their hearts instead of their heads, however, catches up to the Shibatas when Yuri’s parents finally decide that they should look for their daughter and go to the authorities.

Winner of the Palm d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (the highest prize awarded at Cannes), Shoplifters never becomes overly sentimental despite the highly sensitive nature of Kore-eda’s narrative. The film runs counter to the idea that “you can’t choose your family.” It’s a lovely concept Kore-eda explores with so much affection and joy, viewers will end up wanting to be a part of the Shibata family, too.

Shoplifters opens exclusively at the Santikos Bijou on February 1.

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