Anyone who’s seen a few Hirokazu Kore-eda films will have little trouble identifying the director’s primary concern: the fraught relationships within the modern Japanese family, especially those between children and adults. 2004’s Nobody Knows examined the challenges faced by a 12-year-old boy compelled to take care of his younger siblings after the disappearance of their mother, while 2015’s Our Little Sister focused on three young girls and the introduction of a previously unknown half-sister to their family.
The theme remains the same in Kore-eda’s latest, Manbiki kazoku (Shoplifters, opening at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco on Friday, Nov. 23 and at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Nov.30). This time, though, the film’s family is far from a traditional one: instead, they’re a collective of lost souls and abandoned children living happily but precariously on the outskirts of legality.
Petty criminal and day laborer Osamu (the curiously monikered Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Andô), who works at a laundry, assume the parental roles, while confidence artist Hatsue (the late Kirin Kiki, who passed away in September) plays Grandma; the family’s children are Aki (Maya Matsuoka), a young woman who supplements the household’s income with cash earned at a peep show, and Shota (Jyo Kairi), a ten-year old boy whose nimble fingers now help put food on the table.
Osamu has taught Shota well; the pair work collaboratively lifting things that “don’t belong to anyone yet” from the shelves of neighborhood convenience stores and groceries. Returning from a successful day’s shoplifting, they find an apparently abandoned four-year old named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) and – as she also seems to have no ‘owner’ – take her home. Bearing suspicious scars suggesting abuse at the hands of her biological family, Yuri is immediately adopted into the clan and seems reasonably satisfied with the new arrangement.
A house full of criminals and kidnapped children is unlikely to be a stable one, however, and as the film proceeds difficulties increase. A few months after Yuri’s disappearance, her absence is finally reported to the police; a death in the family leads to some unusual funeral arrangements, and the long arm of the law inevitably intrudes.
Kore-eda clearly likes his characters a great deal and you probably will, too. A trip to the seaside is the film’s idyllic highlight: if it ended here you’d leave the theater with a happy glow, but it doesn’t. Happiness, Kore-eda suggests, is fleeting: enjoy it while you can. Having already won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Shoplifters is well poised to reprise that triumph at next year’s Academy Awards.
‘Hale County This Morning, This Evening’
RaMell Ross is a photographer by trade, but he’s taken a stab at moving pictures with Hale County This Morning, This Evening, an observational documentary in the Frederick Wiseman style opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Nov. 23 (no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled). Ross will be in attendance for the film’s first screening.
Following two young African-American men in the rural South over the course of several years, Hale County lacks structure but unsurprisingly makes up for it with visual brio. It’s more tone-poem than documentary, but the film features many moments of great beauty — as well as the delightful presence of a photogenic toddler who dominates the camera whenever the opportunity presents itself.