Shoplifters, 2018 Palme d’or winner is simple, neutral, not that touching

Picture of Julian Liurette

Julian Liurette

Shoplifters, a Japanese film directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda.
Seen on March 26, 2019

Impressions before seeing the film

I decided to see this film at the last minute for 5 dollars at a local cinema in Toronto. The film won the Palme d’or in May 2018 when Cate Blanchett was the jury president of the Cannes Film Festival. It’s been out for several months in Canada. The trailer wasn’t very exciting but I was curious to see the whole film.

Shoplifters trailer

From the trailer, it looked like another conventional family story, nothing new. It reminded me in some ways of Shall we dance and Tokyo Sonata. Hopefully, it’s not as lachrymose as Departures which won in 2008 for best foreign film at the Oscars. That film was nice but heavy handed. I hope this is different. Let’s see why Shoplifters won the heart, eyes and ears of critics around the world.

After seeing the film:

My verdict: 6.5 out of 10

This film takes place nowadays in Japan where we follow what seems like a typical family except they regularly shoplift to survive and the kids don’t call their parents Mum or Dad. The parents work in construction and clean laundry. They are poor but dignified. You gradually understand that no one is actually blood related except for a few characters. They all found each other on the street. There’s the main couple that look like parents and there are several children and a grandmother. The central story revolves around this “family” finding a 5 year-old girl one night abandoned on a balcony. Inside the adjacent apartment, you can hear the little girl’s parents fighting and screaming that they never wanted her. Upon hearing this and seeing the little girl’s scars and bruises on her body, the couple decide to keep the little girl. The little girl is happy to stay with them and gets to know all of them. The film follows the family around in their trials and tribulations. They see on the news that the police thinks the little girl might have been murdered by her parents or kidnapped. For the rest of the film, as a viewer, you wonder when the little girl will be found.

It’s a slow but always eventful film. We are not talking about Michael Bay type of action here. But simple things like eating and finding food – they do a lot of that. It’s also a film about appearances and lying. They all have their stories which we gradually come to understand. The director does a great job at throwing us in this family without spelling out clearly how they all are connected. That’s what the film is mostly about: discovering these characters and following them around.

I can’t say the film was as touching as critics said. It felt neutral, not sad, not happy. It’s not a comedy, it’s not a drama.

On two occasions though, I felt the movie soared. One is when the “new” mother holds the five-year-old girl as they burn the clothes that the little girl wore when they first found her. Her new mother explains that it’s not right to get beaten up by your parents. It’s not dramatic but it’s sweet and the actors feel sincere.

The second time the film soared is my favorite scene of the film. One of the members of the “family” is a young woman who makes money by working in a sex parlour. Male customers sit behind a one-way mirror. They watch as the woman on the other side can’t see them. The woman touches herself as they request. That young woman has a regular visitor. He is shy. He doesn’t talk to her but only writes notes of what he wants her to do. One day, she asks him to go with her in another room where they can actually physically touch. Once there, he lays his head on her legs, she caresses his head and she talks. They are all dressed up. It’s not sexual. Just a tender moment between two human beings who are lonely and in search of a connection. She notices his hand is bruised. She asks why and he points to his own face. It’s very poignant. So much is going in this scene. This scene felt almost like a little short film within the film.

Overall though the film had some issues. The story was hard to believe a times. For example, how come they never get kicked out of where they are living if they are so poor? How can they shoplift in that same area and never get caught? The last 30 minutes felt messy with several possible places where the film seemed to end but didn’t. There is hardly any music in the film and the little there is, it almost veers into the overly sentimental. I am glad that was contained.

I am not sure why the film won the Palme d’or. It’s well filmed, well played, original in showing a reconstructed family of sorts but it’s just ok, not ground breaking technically or story wise. It’s simple and not that touching. Perhaps in the midst of so many films that they saw at Cannes, a simple film is what wins the hearts of the jury?

Side note

The film is 2 hours long and contains about 450 shots. For some reason, I felt like keeping score of the number of angle changes. Anyway, that’s besides the point. Or maybe not. When I lost track of my count that’s when the film was exciting.

One Response

  1. A poignancy occurs during the interrogation of the “new” mother as she asserts that giving birth does not define motherhood. The theme–almost a trope now–of choosing your family is skewed in this film; it starts out as the feel-good option via many loving domestic scenes but then it begins to disintegrate. The irrevocability of “family” is toyed with, from childhood onwards. Audiences will also be asked to consider how money and protection become tied up in love. I agree that there is an unlikely neutrality to the film, a heavy uncertainty. Perhaps that is why it resonated with the Palme d’or jury–as an emblem of an era in which we find ourselves childlike, looking around and wondering whatever happened to the grown-ups.

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