In the loud, prosperous explosion of Asian media representation and discussion this year, one may notice the backbone of family embedded in the motivation and attitudes expressed in the characters, protagonist and “villain” alike. Shoplifters, which won the coveted Palme d’Or in this year’s Cannes festival and became Japan’s first win in over two decades, is certainly no exception. The synopsis appears simply as a one-liner: a family weathered by poverty takes in a young girl to care for. Accompanied by the opening scene, which introduces two of the shoplifters executing a wordless five-fingered discount routine at a supermarket, it’s easy to see how the synchrony of habit demonstrates a bond that has run the test of time.
One night, a little girl, Yuri, is taken under the wing of the family after they find out that her parents don’t seem to be care about her whereabouts, her well-being, and – in the fight we hear in Yuri’s home – her existence. However, life is never simple, and we slowly discover that no one is what they seem. Nonetheless, the more broken we see the characters, the stronger we see their loyalty towards each other, culminating in an experience of humane warmth, despite the underlying schemes of thievery and kidnapping. Through it all, it is hard not to root for the family, since it’s hard not to love something that exudes love.
Kore-eda’s exploration of the meaning of family is not a foreign expedition; take a quick glimpse at his past works and the summaries speak for themselves. Relevant questions have appeared in recent Asian American media. In the 2018 (writer’s personal adjectives: biggest and best) romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians whips a hard deliverance in how untraditional family structure (in this case, a Chinese-American raised by a single parent) can be perceived by a long-established heritage ingrained in old money and class. Celeste Ng aims for the throat of cultural identity in Little Fires Everywhere, a novel released late of last year, when a trial scrutinizes whether an abandoned child should stay with a wealthy white family or be sent back to her financially struggling birth mother, who by then is ready to become a teacher and nurturer. The welcoming of Yuri personifies the question that echoes in these connected themes: “What does it mean to be family?”
The imagery of the film feels palpable, as Kore-eda masterfully places us right into the irises of the characters he chooses, in between scenes of the mundane life routine and conversation. We feel the slipping of time from the grandmother when she watches the family playing at the edge of tides in their beach scene. In one of the movie’s pivotal scenes, where the grocery workers see the spill of oranges on an empty road, it feels like our hearts are splattered as well.
And, of course, there’s the overwhelming feeling of tenderness, particularly by Nobuyo (brilliantly acted by Sakura Ando) in the last act, reminiscent of Mahershala Ali’s softened portrayal towards Chiron’s “coming out” in 2016’s Moonlight. The movie strongly resonates with a reminder that there is almost nothing sadder than loving someone who is unable to understand it at the time, and it almost makes me hate it. Almost.