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‘Shoplifters’: Love is more than mere biology


The 2019 Spokane International Film Festival opens tonight at the Bing Crosby Theater and will run for the next full week at the Magic Lantern. But a movie that is playing tonight at the Lantern, and might even continue playing there when SpIFF 2019 is over, is the Japanese-made "Shoplifters."

Following is the review that I wrote of the film for Spokane Public Radio: 

Most moviegoers tend to hold certain expectations of the films they see. In crime films, justice should prevail. The same for Westerns. Comedies should make us laugh, and romance films should end with a kiss. And so on.

You will, of course, find exceptions. And it is in those divergences from the norm that greatness can, and often does, reside. Justice, for example, is a debatable point in 1981’s “Body Heat.” Same for 1992’s “Unforgiven.” 1997’s “Life is Beautiful” is as full of tears as it is laughter. And 2007’s “Atonement,” though involving such larger concepts as betrayal and the horror of war, is at heart a romance that ends at the opposite extreme of a kiss.

Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeada has been working in his country’s television and film industry since the late 1980s. And though I have seen only two of his previous features – 1999’s “After Life” and 2004’s “Nobody Knows” – I’ve seen and read enough to know that his artistic intent is to explore the full range of human experience.

It’s equally clear that his ability to tell a rich, complex story has only improved over the decades. His latest film, “Shoplifters,” is evidence of that, its patient revelation of an unusually complex family situation as beguiling as it is heartbreaking.

The family is question is an atypical group, one that exists outside of regular Japanese society – the adults working when they can and getting by, when they can’t, through means suggested by the film’s title. As one character rationalizes, as long as you don’t drive the owners into bankruptcy, it’s OK to steal from a store because no one yet owns the merchandise.

Father figure Osamu is a day laborer who takes pride in showing the pre-teen Shota how to steal. Osamu’s mate is Nobuyo, a strong-willed but compassionate woman who works in a laundry but who is no more tied to mainstream mores than Osamu. Then there’s Aki, a young woman who works in a sex-shop – where all that is allowed is a lot of watching and, maybe, the occasional cuddle.

All live in a tiny house with Hatsue, the dowager grandmother who dispenses folk wisdom along with traditional cures. Which comes in handy when, one cold night, Osamu and Shota encounter 5-year-old Juri shivering on an apartment terrace. Soon Juri is huddling with Hatsue and the others. And there she stays, Nobuyo and Osamu’s only attempt to return her home ending when they hear the unmistakable sounds of domestic violence. 

Juri stays on even when, after a two-month lapse, television stations report on the girl’s disappearance, even broadcasting suspicions that she may be dead. From there, Koreeda builds to a climax that feels natural, even if it doesn’t follow the narrative you’re apt to find in a mainstream American film.

That’s because Koreeda is less interested in mere entertainment than he is intent on exploring a definition of family that is based more on acceptance and compassion than on biology. That the compassion comes from characters who exist on the fringes of accepted society only emphasizes the heartbreaking irony of Koreeda’s message.

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