Uplift and tears in equal measure

Shoplifters derives its gut-wrenching emotional power from just how spare it is.
Shoplifters derives its gut-wrenching emotional power from just how spare it is. PHOTO: GV



121 minutes/Opens today/4.5 stars

The story: A crew of petty thieves and day labourers find a pre-schooler who appears to be abused. The older man, Osamu (Lily Franky), wants to give shelter to the girl, but the others in the group say she should be returned to her family.

Every now and then, a film comes along that renews one's faith in the power of movies to touch the heart.

This work, from celebrated Japanese film-maker Hirokazu Kore-eda, does just that - there is uplift and tears in equal measure.

The film derives its gut-wrenching emotional power from just how spare it is. Kore-eda accumulates details of character and place in such a natural, unforced way that the pay-offs come unexpectedly, arriving with the force of a burst dam.

Ideas explored in this winner of the Cannes Film Festival's highest prize, the Palme d'Or, include the meaning of family and how society's definition of family often runs counter to how people actually behave.

These are familiar themes for fans of his work, but here, they are packaged in a story that might be his strongest and most accessible yet.

The wounded waif, Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), is the character that incites the events of the film, but she also serves as the lens through which Osamu's "family" is viewed by the audience.

They each have a moral failing - Osamu and "son" Shota (Kairi Jo) are petty thieves and "grandmother" Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) is fond of guilt-tripping relatives into giving her cash, for example.

With Osamu's "wife" Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) and "daughter" Aki (Mayu Matsuoka), they form a happy troupe, held together by shared secrets as much as by love and trust.

Their Tokyo home might be old and cramped, but it is their holdout in a city filled with callous corporations, greedy landlords and nosy social workers.

When a rag-tag but loving band of petty crooks are protagonists, there will be comparisons with the work of English writer Charles Dickens.

For all that, the signature Kore-eda touches are still here, if one cares to look.


Specific food items, especially their preparation and significance in memory and childhood, are lovingly mentioned and shown.

There are pauses in which the child points out a parent's hypocrisy and several lyrical moments in which members show how much they care for and need one another, without addressing those emotions directly.

There is a lot here that will remind viewers of Captain Fantastic (2016), an American film starring Viggo Mortensen as a fiery back-to-nature idealist raising his children in the wilderness.

Kore-eda's characters are not idealists - far from it. But neither are they hardened criminals.

Like the girl they find on the street, they see themselves as bruised and hurting, and if bending the rules is what it takes to heal, then that is what they have to do.

By the end of the movie, it would take a heart of stone to find fault with their point of view.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2018, with the headline 'Uplift and tears in equal measure'. Print Edition | Subscribe